Decency

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I was a young twenty something when Richard Nixon was president. I never liked the man, and used my vote to register my contempt. My emotions toward him were admittedly base and immature. I’d flinch at the very sight of him, and I managed to extend my dislike to his wife and children. I realize now that my disdain was often irrational because in retrospect I have taken the time to learn more about him and his time as the president. In that study I see that he actually did some very good things for the country, but back in the day he could do nothing right in my eyes. I even cringed when one of my favorite entertainers, Sammy Davis, Jr., supported him.

I watched the Watergate investigation with a certain level of glee and celebrated Nixon’s darkest hour when he was forced to resign his office. I watched him leave the White House will nothing less than exuberant self satisfaction. In my mind he had earned his  too long in coming humiliation. I gladly wiped him out of my mind and was overjoyed that he decided to live out the rest of his life rather quietly out of the public eye. I had no desire to hear from him again.

When Richard Nixon died it was a newsworthy event in spite of his transgressions. The airwaves were filled with images of people honoring him and his family. Being a person who is interested in such things from an historical perspective I watched the proceedings with little emotional attachment. After all, this was a man whom I had never liked even though the passage of time had warmed my heart to him a bit more than when I was still a very young adult. Nonetheless, I recall feeling disgusted when I witnessed one of Nixon’s long time friends and allies breaking down in a fit of emotion and tears at the funeral. I sarcastically poked fun of the man only to be chastised by my husband Mike in a manner that he rarely uses with me. He derided me for lacking sensibility at such an emotional time. “His friend has died!” he reminded me. “Show some compassion for the people who have lost someone that they love.”

I was shocked because Mike had never been a Nixon fan either, but I understood in that moment that I was exhibiting a lack of basic decency. There are lines of decorum that just don’t need to be crossed, and I had gone too far in my criticism of Nixon with my churlish commentary. He was dead and the funeral was a time for those who genuinely loved and respected him to demonstrate their feelings. After all, his daughters insist to this very day that he was always good father. Friends admired him and loved him. Who was I to poke fun at their genuine emotions?

I am still not a fan of President Nixon, but I have studied him and his administration enough to understand that while he had many imperfections he also did some very good things. His insecurities and fears ended up ruining his reputation, but he was more of a tragic figure in the Shakespearean sense than a truly evil man. There were very good things that he did like opening up relations with China and brokering peace in the Middle East. In fact it was he who ended the Vietnam War that I so loathed. As a young person I was far too generally incensed to take the time to parse his good traits and separate them out from his bad. In the end he allowed his own demons to overtake his reason, but that did not make him a totally evil man in the sense that I judged him back then. He was merely a human filled with both good instincts and glaring imperfections.

I’ve thought about the intemperate insults that I hurled at the people who were grieving the loss of President Nixon as I’ve listened to the immature and unnecessary rantings of President Trump regarding John McCain. While I too have been guilty of hyperbolic criticism of people I would like to think that those in high office might be more circumspect in their utterances, particularly once a person is dead. At this point there is little reason for Trump to continue to stew over the differences that he and Senator McCain had. If nothing else a sense of decency should lead him to let go of his anger.

Sadly our nation is engaged in a long winded and petty brawl in which anyone is fair game for insults and jibes. Almost every politician is sorted and categorized into narrow estimations of character that mark him/her as good or bad depending on point of view. There is no room for considerations of the continuum of reality in which we all exist. In truth the idea of either totally vilifying or adoring any individual is absurd, and leads to illogical assessments of important decisions. It might be a natural trait of exuberant youth to be more emotion driven, but we all need to grow up at some point and learn how to think without melodramatic outbursts. Right now those who show moderation are often thought to be without ideals, and yet it is likely that they are the true adults in the room. Perhaps that is why someone like Senator John McCain is a conundrum not just to President Trump but to most democrats as well. He was a man who considered each issue on its own merits, not from the perspective of a set of values frozen in concrete.

It was once said of me that I am capable of finding good in everyone, even an evil person like Charles Manson. That is indeed true of me because I have learned that every person who lives is an amalgam of both good and bad. Some learn how to tame their ill natured tendencies and others are defined by them. Perhaps the route that each of us follows is formed by the ways in which people see us and we then see ourselves. Our humanity is complex and who we ultimately become as individuals is determined by a million different things. Perhaps the good in us wins out because people are willing to see it, just as the bad sometimes seizes the day because our negative traits are the only things that define us in people’s eyes. 

If we have any hope of being a nation of integrity, then we must begin to publicly acknowledge good acts when we see them regardless of who is performing them. We need to stop the practice of turning people into incomplete caricatures of themselves, and instead admit to both their positive traits and their flaws. It would also do us well to return to adherence to a bit of decency befitting of logic and compassion.      

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