Now that we’re in the season of political debates, it’s tempting to think that significance flows from politics.
But recently I had the pleasure of hearing a talk by Lech Walesa, the Polish electrician who managed to become president of his country for several years and lead a movement that eventually resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet empire. The essence of his talk was that we should stop debating about “policies, politics, and politicians” and “begin the debate about values.” He didn’t elaborate about the values to be debated, but it was clear that he was talking about the question of character. He meant that the debate about values should permeate the whole culture and not be focused on whether or not a certain political candidate demonstrates good character.
Commenting on his just-released movie, Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg uses an unusual phrase, saying that it is a “character thriller.” The movie is about my late father, a private lawyer who undertakes to win the release of an American flyer captured in the Soviet Union, Francis Gary Powers, in exchange for Soviet Col. Rudolph Abel. My father was Abel’s court-appointed defense counsel, and Spielberg’s point was that he stood up against tremendous adverse opinion by repeatedly insisting that even an enemy spy deserves his day in court.
Abel was captured in New York in 1957, and I well remember my father taking me, as a 12-year-old boy, over to visit him in the federal detention center. In the movie, Col. Abel likens my father to a man that he knew as a child who kept on getting up after being repeatedly being knocked down to the point where his assailants simply gave up.
It would seem that Lech Walesa’s point was that character strength, if somehow promulgated throughout our society, would do more to ameliorate our social ills than any public policy imaginable. This is not to say that all policies are created equal; obviously some are better than others. But it’s the pretense of many liberals to think that more regulation and taxation will work wonders and the pretense of many conservatives to think that the mere removal of regulation and taxation is all we need.
Two British figures from the early 19th century, philosopher Edmund Burke and reformer William Wilberforce, insisted that that what they called “manners” were more important than legislation. Burke insisted that the essence of transformation lay in what he called “little platoons,” the voluntary local associations which, when mobilized vigorously, can achieve social and moral regeneration. I like the word “platoons,” because as a veteran of the Marine infantry in Vietnam, I well remember the esprit de corps we felt out in the field.
To speak of character, virtue, or morality is to scare up the great bugaboos of our age—the fear of arrogance, judgmentalism, and potential hypocrisy. Personally I admit to a degree of hypocrisy to the extent that I don’t fully exemplify the virtues that I advocate. But yet I advocate them unabashedly, because what we can gain by “policies, politics, and politicians” is very little compared to what we can gain from the consistent exercise of character strength close to the social problem of concern.
Recently I was invited to speak at All Hallows, a high school located near Yankee Stadium that my father had attended. The question was asked of this large audience of students who their heroes were. Two students volunteered their idea about heroes, and neither one of them referred to baseball players. One said that his father was a hero to him, and the second one said that his high school community was a hero to him because they rallied around him in a recent crisis.
I submit that those answers had more far-reaching significance than anything that has been said so far in the presidential debates. When families and other local communities display values such as self-sacrifice, then true transformation begins to bubble up at the personal and local level in a way that can’t be canceled out in the next election. It’s not so much what will happen in the White House or the state house as what will happen in our house.
I’m reminded of an assertion by philosopher William James: “I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.”
John B. Donovan, a former corporate speechwriter about leadership and public policy, is the son of James B. Donovan, the Cold War attorney played by Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies. James Donovan’s memoir, Strangers on a Bridge, has just been reissued by Scribner.