My father was a devout Catholic until he died in 1977. In about 1962 or 1963 he got into an argument with the pastor of his parish, Father McGuire, another Irishman, over the changes the Church had begun instituting that culminated in the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II.
My father was what we would call today a traditionalist. For him being a Catholic meant masses in Latin said by a priest with his back to the faithful. Father McGuire was younger and held that the Church needed to modernize. Part of that modernization meant masses in the vernacular with a less authoritarian role for the priest. My father was active in the parish since he had several kids in its school. Evidently he used to have some heated arguments with McGuire over church doctrine. My dad didn’t argue politely; he argued passionately as did McGuire from what I’ve learned.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my old man over the past few weeks, and the recent controversy over Scott McClellan’s tell-all book brought my dad’s actions 45 years ago into focus. One response to the McClellan’s book really resonated with me. Bob Dole wrote an email to Scott McClellan where he calls him a “miserable creature”.
There are miserable creatures like you in every administration who don’t have the guts to speak up or quit if there are disagreements with the boss or colleagues. No, your type soaks up the benefits of power, revels in the limelight for years, then quits, and spurred on by greed, cashes in with a scathing critique.
Bob Dole gets it. If Scott McClellan truly believed at the time that the decision to go to Iraq was wrong, then he had a moral obligation to speak up or resign. When a man finds himself doing a job that he deep down believes is morally wrong, than it is his moral duty to himself and if he’s religious, to his God, to do what he can to change the situation and failing that, to quit.
McClellan wasn’t in the military. He wouldn’t have been court martialed for disobeying orders. If he had voiced his disagreement with administration policy at the time, the worst outcome would have been the president demanding his resignation. There would have been public statements of wishing him the best, and he would have landed a cushy job at a university, thinktank or lobbyist firm.
Similarly Barack Obama’s recent announcement that after 20 years he was leaving the Trinity United Church of Christ where Rev. Jeremiah Wright has preached his paranoid and racist beliefs meets Dole’s “miserable creature”criteria. If Obama disagreed with the pastor, it was his moral duty to either confront him and if that failed to temper Wright’s ravings, to quit the church. There are thousands of churches in Chicago, and had Obama truly disagreed with Wright as he now claims, he should have quit the church years ago. But he chose to stay.
My feeling is that Obama belonged to Wright’s church because it gave him “street cred” – something in common with the African-American community that his elite upbringing couldn’t provide. I suspect that he never believed what Wright said, which would explain why he seemed so incredulous at first when outsiders looked seriously at the pastor’s statements. Why should the press and the rest of the country take Wright’s rantings seriously if he didn’t?
If on the other hand he did believe Wright’s rhetoric, throwing him under the bus now shows that Obama will steamroller anyone who stands in his way. At this point Obama can’t win on the issue, and why he decided three months after the Wright controversy started making the front pages shows that once again Obama is a poor decision maker. The controversy was dying down – except among people like me who aren’t going to vote for him anyway. Yet inexplicably he decided to fan the flames again by cutting ties with Wright.
For the final 15 years of his life my father refused to step foot in a church except to walk his daughters down the aisle at their weddings. He considered himself a Catholic up to his death, but for the last decade and a half he refused to attend mass or take sacraments.
Unlike McClellan and Obama, my father didn’t have a choice. There was no Catholic church that maintained its pre-Vatican II traditions. He spoke up and fought for what he believed in and when that failed to change Church policy, he stopped going to church. From what I understand it wasn’t an easy choice for him, especially for a man as deeply religious as he was, but he did it.
Like Bob Dole my father was a war veteran; he knew about choices and honor, how it was often necessary to make hard from the former in order to maintain the latter. My father finished school in the tenth grade, served in the military and spent the rest of his life working in the trades, yet he understood something that neither McClellan nor Obama do not after all their university degrees and experience at the very pinnacle of our society. Did he and Dole pick it up on the battlefield, or was it a product of their generation? Perhaps it isn’t something the Greatest Generation had but that their children the Baby Boomers lack.
We are confronted by such choices every day of our lives, and over time our choices stand as a measure of our character. My father was not the greatest; for most of his life he had a drinking problem and our family suffered as a result. But it gained from his work ethic that kept food on the table through troubled times, as well as from the protection of a man “blessed” with 4 daughters growing up in the 1960’s. All of my siblings are decent people with one glaring exception – my 2nd sister who turned her back on us and took to her husband’s family instead of her own. We have all become successful, and my father played no small part in that even if he died when I was a kid.
McClellan will become wealthy from his books, and Obama might yet become president. However both men pale in comparison to my father when it comes to their character, and Dole’s email says why.
McClellan and Obama won’t understand it and neither will their supporters for whom “character” is a meaningless term. But one day McClellan will wonder why his fame has been fleeting, and if Obama fails to win in November – or perhaps even if he does – why History has judged him so harshly. And when this happens perhaps they will read Dole’s email and see what the former senator from Kansas and World War II hero understood that they did not.