Jan. 16, 2013
Listening to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) offer up prayers for President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters in Richmond last week reminded me how sweet reconciliation can be. I have not changed my opinion of President Obama’s policies—especially what I regard as his harmful moves on abortion, marriage, and religious freedom.
Still, speaker after speaker at the Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast noted the fellowship they shared around prayer in the legislature in Richmond. Virginia’s General Assembly lays claim to being the oldest legislature in the New World. The evident genuineness of the friendship between Democrats and Republicans in Richmond may serve as a lesson for politicos here in Washington.
Recently, I met a young man who is descended from Founding Father Benjamin Rush. Dr. Rush was a key figure in the Revolution, a friend to all the leading figures. Always a Patriot, Dr. Rush was a Signer of the Declaration of Independence. He strongly supported Gen. Washington’s “policy of humanity” toward the defeated Hessians at Trenton. This took a lot of courage because those Hessians had given no quarter to our boys whom they overran on Long Island. They ran our young soldiers through with their terrible 17-inch bayonets—even after the Americans had surrendered.
Because I now knew one of his “posterity,” I made a point of looking out for Dr. Rush as I watched the HBO series on “John Adams.” The last episode was especially touching—and revealing.
Even in his ninetieth year, the ex-president remains mentally acute. In fact, he seems actually to discern more. “Take away hope and what remains? I have seen the Queen of France with 18 million livres of diamonds and jewels on her person, yet all the charms of her face and figure did not impress me as much as that little shrub.” He points to a delicate little flower with his walking stick. Adams turns to his youngest son, Thomas, and says, “your mother always said I never delighted enough in the mundane. But now, if I look at the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam.”
He looks up at the sky and at the beauty of the fields around him. They are his fields, tilled by his own hand, and not, as those of his dear friend, Thomas Jefferson, labored in by slaves. His words on the little flower are but a paraphrase of Jesus’s in the Sermon on the Mount: Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not. Neither do they spin. Yet Solomon in all his splendor was not arrayed as one of these.
Then old Honest John Adams turns to his son, ecstatically, and says: “Rejoice evermore. Rejoice evermore!” Thomas seems to think father a bit daft. “It’s from St. Paul, you fool,” and he shouts to the sky: REJOICE EVERMORE.
Sobering, he confesses: “I wish that had always been in my heart and on my tongue.”
He recognizes the lifetime of broken relationships and fierce hostilities. He may be regretting the tragedy of a son who drinks himself to death and the estrangement from a son-in-law who, though a brave and resourceful officer in war, and a dutiful secretary to himself, had nonetheless a penchant for bootless get-rich-quick schemes that ended in penury.
One of the most important scenes is that in 1812 between the great Dr. Benjamin Rush and Adams. Dr. Rush had been on hand for daughter Nabby’s breast cancer operation and subsequent death, and for Abigail’s passing.
Now, he tenderly offers to inform Mr. Jefferson of Abigail’s passing. “If Thomas Jefferson were to send me a letter, Adams says, “I would not fail to answer it.”
Delicately, Rush suggests perhaps Adams might write first. We know that they had not been on speaking terms since Adams took the morning coach out of Washington in 1801.
Adams’s face darkens: “that man honored and salaried every villain who was an enemy to me and who caused grave harm to my reputation.”
Softly, Dr. Rush’s answer would turn away wrath: “that is why you must show magnanimity. I consider you and Mr. Jefferson the North and South Poles of our revolution. Some spoke. Some wrote. Some fought. But you and Mr. Jefferson thought for us all.”
What the camera should then have recorded, but inexplicably did not, was John Adams bursting into tears, saying: “I have always loved Thomas Jefferson!”
They may dispute Adams’s and Jefferson’s faith, but no one has ever said Benjamin Rush was not a Christian. Rush’s great work of reconciliation makes possible the magnificent closing scene of their lives: Adams and Jefferson dying on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Without Rush’s healing intervention, the two giants might have died the same day, still bitter antagonists.
We need that healing balm of friendship and reconciliation now more than ever. One thing I learned from the Values Bus tour last fall. I would make a point of thanking our friends who came out to hear us. Then, I would work the line of protesters who came out to oppose us. I thanked them, too, for coming.
In Eagle River, Wisconsin, some of the protesters looked puzzled when I welcomed them. I pointed to the TV cameras and microphones. “When you come, they come. And then we get our Values Bus on the 6 o’clock news. So, welcome!” Some of them even laughed. We have to be warriors, alas, but we can be happy warriors. Dr. Benjamin Rush taught us how.