Arm in arm with spirit of civic responsibility

by Kenneth L. Woodward

Americans who fret about the role of religious leaders in public life please take note.

At a dinner Tuesday at the National Portrait Gallery, members of Congress and the Supreme Court will honor a clergyman for 50 years of unmatched public service to his country. No, it’s not Billy Graham or any of the other celebrity preachers who have spent the night in the Lincoln Bedroom. This Roman Catholic priest has no constituency a politician might covet and has never provided religious cover for any occupant of the White House.

The honoree is Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, whose portrait will be added to the gallery’s permanent collection.

The “portrait” is actually a black-and white photograph showing Hesburgh locked arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr. as they sang “We Shall Overcome” during a rally at Soldier Field celebrating passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Chicago’s Cardinal John Cody refused to appear at the rally (as did the city’s other prominent Catholic leader, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley) so Hesburgh drove from Notre Dame to provide a national Catholic presence.

But Hesburgh had another reason for showing up that day. As chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, he had played a central role in the passage of that landmark act by documenting how black Americans were systematically denied the right to vote. Appointed to the commission in 1957 by President Dwight Eisenhower, Hesburgh was reappointed by Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Altogether, Hesburgh has held 16 presidential commissions, serving both Republicans and Democrats. President Jimmy Carter named him U.S. ambassador to the International Atoms for Peace Conference in 1979, a post he held for three years. He also assumed leadership roles for the United Nations and other international organizations, including the Vatican. But what is exemplary is not whom Hesburgh served but how.

Father Ted, as everyone calls him, regarded public office as a trust and service as a religious duty. But he picked his spots. The issues he worked on — civil rights, nuclear arms control, peace in the Middle East, to name a few — were all moral issues that require political solutions. He could preach, but he preferred to negotiate and persuade.

For example, few thought that his first civil rights commissioners — three Southerners and two Northerners, a mix of Democrats and Republicans — would agree on strategy. But they were all fishermen, so Hesburgh brought them to the university’s retreat at Land O’Lakes, Wis., where they all went fishing. Then, after martinis and dinner, they reached nearly unanimous agreement on guidelines for the president.

Again, in the late 1950s, when Hesburgh was in Vienna as the Vatican’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, he found a way to bring the antagonistic American and Soviet sides to the table. He did it by inviting a personal friend from each delegation to his hotel suite and leaving them alone to negotiate. “Just buzz me if you need anything,” he said. It worked.

Father Ted was never overawed by political power and those who wield it. He never stayed overnight at the White House, or wanted to. He remained independent of party politics and so felt free to speak his mind — which is why Richard Nixon eventually fired him as chair of the Civil Rights Commission in 1972. He could make mistakes, but he couldn’t be used.

Hesburgh was comfortable with powerful people because he didn’t need power for himself. His base was Notre Dame, where his tenure — 35 years — was longer than any other college or university president’s.

He always cited vision as the key to leadership — in education as well as public service. But his own strengths lay in his ability to make friends, meet goals and inspire trust. He has a politician’s knack for remembering names and the gift of sizing up character — or lack of it — quickly.

Father Ted turned 90 this year and is now nearly blind. Grad students read the newspapers to him every day in his office atop the Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame. In old age he is still connected, still serving. He won’t be able to make out all the faces at Tuesday’s dinner. No matter. He’ll easily place the names.

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

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