We have been in Florida for a few weeks. Our motive was to escape a really cold January in Missouri. That worked for a while, but now we are back in Missouri. It is February and still cold. Plus there was a seven inch snow fall yesterday.
In Florida we did some things on our bucket list. We snorkeled with the manatees at Crystal River and watched a launch at Cape Canaveral.
I did not read much Bible or archeology stuff. Instead I read the late congressman, Ike Skelton’s, memoir, Achieve the Honorable. Ike died last year just a few weeks after publishing the book. I was interested in the book because I knew Ike Skelton. He was once a parishioner of mine. When his first wife, Susie, died in 2005, I supported the family and organized the funeral.
We never talked about politics but we talked about history, which interested us both. We talked about the Lewis and Clark expedition. He had studied the expedition from the standpoint of Missouri history and I had studied it from the standpoint of Montana history.
In the book he talked about knowing historian, Stephen Ambrose, who wrote a book about Lewis and Clark. After a presentation by Ambrose, Ike had asked him what he thought made America great. Ambrose compared America to Russia. Both nations have great drive and natural resources. But what made America great were the honorable men of ideas and values. Washington. Jefferson, Adams, and Madison gave us a heritage that made America stand out.
Ike agreed. Thus, he held to something resembling Carlyle’s great-men theory of history. This is a much despised idea today. You can see why feminists don’t like it. And we do need to remember that there were matriarchs as well as patriarchs. However, the main reason for its disfavor is the prevalence of abstract dialectical theories stemming from Hegel and Marx. History often gets abstracted into structures and movements rather than people and events. I think it is telling that the Declaration of Independence saw history as “the course of human events”. I think that is the most interesting way to look at history.
This is why Ike Skelton’s book is an important counter to the cynicism people like me have developed about American politics. If ideology continues to rule, then we are doomed to polarization and civil unrest. But if people can achieve honor and care about their country more than about party or ideology, then there is hope. A theory of history that allows for great people to improve things holds out hope.
Ike’s story is a hopeful one. His plan for a military career ended when he was a teen. Polio disabled him for life. He overcame this as much as he could. But more remarkable to me is that he overcame the tendency to attribute bad motives to opponents that seems to go with modern politics. I could not find a single instance of this in the book. Instead, he speaks of opponents and colleagues with gentle humor. The cynic in me thinks that the book probably won’t sell well, because it doesn’t offer the red meat political memoirs often contain.
His 2010 defeat for reelection must have stung. He was a Truman Democrat in an increasingly Republican district. In 2004 both Ike and G. W. Bush carried the district with more than 60 percent of the vote. He fit the district because he was pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-military. He voted against the Affordable Care Act. He lost in 2010 because Republicans managed to turn the election into a referendum on Nancy Pelosi. But he never says anything even slightly uncivil about his opponent or the electorate. There is nothing of Morris Udall’s famous quote: “The people have spoken–the bastards.”
Ike was melancholy but reflective about his defeat. He sensed that something profound had changed. My guess would be that Walter Russell Mead’s idea of the breakdown of the “blue model” might explain part of it. Mead says that the New Deal social model that worked well for many people in the second half of the twentieth century just doesn’t work anymore. Ike was committed to the blue model. FDR, who also had polio, was a role model.
Nevertheless, I include myself among the many who loved Ike Skelton. A lot of politicians probably deserve the belief that they are fake. But the man who came back from Washington and walked to church in his hometown wasn’t fake. He could be criticized for participating in the horse trading of Washington. The way to stay in Washington was to get all the goodies you could for your district. But Ike’s study of history had convinced him that the U.S. needed a strong military. So his support for what some saw as earmarks and pork for Whiteman Air Force base and Fort Leonard Wood was based on real conviction about what America needed.
Also Ike was an example of civility. I served churches in several county seat towns in Missouri and Oklahoma. In these towns political opponents have common community ties and church membership. There are a lot of friendships across party lines. The personal often overcomes the political. In the book Ike says that the Clintons were the first to reach out to him after Susie died. He meant that they were the first of the political people who did. Actually, among the very first to reach out to him was a hometown Republican surgeon friend and fellow church member. There are moments when the party label just doesn’t matter much.