Eleven years ago, Peggy Noonan, a presidential aide and speech writer wrote a memoir about a former boss, Ronald Reagan. She called it, “When Character was King.”
Reagan's success was no secret. It was his character, Noonan wrote, his courage, his kindness, his persistence, his honesty, and his almost heroic patience in the face of setbacks.
Even those who disagreed with Reagan liked and respected him. That was true of people as different as former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill and Mikhail Gorbachev, former head of the Soviet Union.
Noonan's title may have summed up her feelings about a president she admired, but it made me think of my father.
The true measure of a man is not his talent, intelligence, wealth or career success, he taught me. Character is what counts..
Many things in life we cannot control, the place or station of our birth, the wealth of our families, our physical characteristics and numerous other factors. But how we deal with our lot in life, especially how we treat others, is what defines us. That is not given to us, it is something we choose to strive for.
We may be born in humble circumstances and have few external advantages, but we can still go about life with kindness, courage, honesty and persistence. Most of all, we can accord others respect, even if we're not respected in return.
Like Reagan, even those who disagreed with my father respected him because he showed respect for everyone regardless of their opinions or station in life.
One lesson of character made a lasting impression on my father, and he passed it to me.
In 1894, a young captain in the French army was convicted of treason. Dreyfus was Jewish, and jealous antisemitic officers framed him. He spent five years in a notorious penal colony called Devil's Island, much of it in solitary confinement.
When offered a pardon, Dreyfus refused to accept it. To accept a pardon would be to admit guilt, and he was not guilty.
His courage and character won him the respect of leading Frenchmen, including the novelist Emile Zola, who rallied to his cause. Eventually, the plot against Dreyfus was exposed. He was acquitted and welcomed back into the army. When the Germans invaded France in 1914, Dreyfus wore a colonel's uniform as he fought for the defense of his country.
Too often, I have seen people wreck their lives because of bitterness about their circumstances and resentment toward those they believed had benefited from unfair advantage or had treated them unfairly.
A lot of advantages came my way because people respected my father. I got many opportunities and even some second chances because of the man my father was.
Gratitude for my father's example, however, is tempered by the thought that no matter how hard I strive, I can never live up to it. Just as I will never be as tall as he is, I won't ever be his moral equal. Although I can't do anything about my physical stature, I can continue to work toward being the kind of man he still is at age 97.
The scriptures teach us that we are not inherently good. Even those with good examples, and many have none, all of us still make bad choices. Only be the grace of God, do we approach what we should be. We are given access to God's grace by various means. I see God as my father because I could see God at work in my father.
That's what I am thankful for this Father's Day.