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  • Reverend James Squire

The Hard Right Over The Easy Wrong




One of my predecessors as Chaplain of the Episcopal Academy, was the Reverend Canon Charles S. Martin who went on to be called to be Head of St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. I have heard stories about him including one about his great fundraising ability. Someone once said of him that “he could get his hand into and out of someone else’ hand quicker than anyone at a fundraiser. He knew how to work a room.”


St. Albans is a school in the capitol so it is not surprising that some graduates of the school would be part of families from the political world such as Al Gore, Evan Bayh, John Kerry, and Jesse Jackson, Jr. Canon Martin embedded the school with the phrase to do the hard right and not the easy wrong. Most schools have a theme that permeates the culture. When I evaluated the Gilman School in Baltimore for their accreditation, I told the story of the four quarters in my summary. I was there for three days and in the afternoon, I would go for a run. I noticed on the bench outside the locker that I chose that there were four quarters that just sat there and were never touched for three days. When I met with the seniors, I reflected this to them. They were clear and decisive in their response. “We aren’t perfect, but one thing is absolutely forbidden. You don’t touch or steal other peoples’ stuff.” For EA it was the school motto, Esse Quam Videri, to be rather than to seem to be. In the students’ words, “Do not be a phony.”


There is a story told about Canon Martin and Al Gore that is recounted in an article by David Ignatius, a graduate of St. Albans, in the Washington Post (October 23, 2000), “Schooled in picking the hard right over the easy wrong.”


The role that Canon Martin played in Al Gore’s life relates very much to our current political malaise particularly after the raid by the FBI on Trump’s residence and for one underlying reason why people pick a wrong approach over a right one. The story illustrates the difference between Trump and Gore.


In Ignatius’ article, he recounts that Gore was a lineman on the St. Albans football team as well as the captain of the team which was having a losing season. After one play, Gore, out of frustration, began punching the ground. A referee who didn’t have a clear picture of what was happening accused Al Gore of punching an opponent and penalized St. Albans for poor sportsmanship. Gore was called to Canon Martin’s office to meet with him on the following Monday morning. Gore was shaking for the possible disappointment he would be to his mentor. Gore indicated that he didn’t do it, and Canon Martin responded by saying that was all that he needed to hear. One of Martin’s ethical gifts was his unwavering belief in good character. There are three levels of status in relationships, one up, one down, and shared. When Al Gore walked into Canon Martin’s office, he was one down. When he walked out, he felt a shared status and belief in his inherent goodness. That should be our gift to one another.

Our goal should be to do that for others. I speak from experience. It is a powerful way to assist others even those students who entered my office and instantly proclaimed, “I didn’t do it!” Believe in them until they give you reason not to.


What does this have to do with today? In Gore’s address to the Democratic Convention when he received the nomination to be the democratic candidate for President, he used that phrase to choose the hard right and not the easy wrong. If you had attended St. Albans School when Martin and Gore were there, your head would have snapped up on hearing it. Canon Martin had died in 1997. Dan Ariely, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke, has done research that if you have just one phrase embedded in your soul to do the ethical thing, you will be highly likely to choose the hard right over the easy wrong.


Recall that the election between Gore and Bush was so close that it had to be decided by the authorities in Florida. The campaign was brutal and hard fought, not unlike the challenges of Gore on the football field. When the verdict was decided for Bush, Gore honored the result and called for all to support and rally around the new President. What a vivid difference from that of Trump and a now high percentage of Republican voters. Keep in mind that this was not seen as a big deal to support the transfer of power in our democracy during the time Gore and Bush. It was a given. Everyone followed Gore’s directive.


Second, what we also know about Gore and Canon Martin and his days at St. Albans’ was that Martin had an unwavering belief in the good character of others. This was reflected in Gore channeling his mentor. Today we have threats made against a judge and law enforcement and our democracy. People assume the worse. When Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian, was asked yesterday why our current times and attitude are major threats to our democratic way of life, she replied that only two out of ten Americans believe in our government institutions. People assume the worse.


There is another reason beyond Trump’s allegiance to status and a self-centered approach to governing. It is something that is sometimes overlooked, but seen so clearly in him and in our partisan politics today. When we do something wrong as Gore thought that Canon Martin would think he did, you are immediately in a one down position. You lose status, and in politics status can be everything. Research says that this is a male trait that has now been adopted by female voices in their political conversations. Men in conversation instinctively try to one up one another whether it is crowd size or positive feedback from the press. Seeking status in exchanges is a cultural issue. It is not universal. However, this has become the heart of our current political culture.


The ethical questions that are needed to be addressed as a nation to overcome our current political plight are: What phrase is needed for us to embrace? Is it still “united we stand…USA? How can we begin to see the good in others? We need to counter Lindsay Graham’s proclamation that “If you don’t want to be reelected, you’re in the wrong business.”


Gore’s friends and allies knew he was not perfect. He could be pompous and boring. But no one doubted that he was always headed in the right direction to do the hard right and not the easy wrong. I believe that is the phrase that stands with us at the brink of our recovery as a nation. We need to use it and, more importantly, act on it as much as we can.

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