In an unprecedented year, with the unexpected colliding with the unimaginable almost daily, a face mask being offered on the internet stopped what I was doing and lifted my unraveling spirits.
Some patriotic and entrepreneurial souls had purloined a quotation of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, and printed it on both adult and children masks. “Voting is a civic sacrament,” the axiom announces in large letters, with full credit to “Theodore Hesburgh” in smaller type below.
The long-serving Notre Dame president never openly took political sides in an election, but he always emphasized to students, alumni and others that there was a near-sacred quality to the secular act of casting a ballot and, more broadly, participating in the democratic process.
Hesburgh’s life was a civic testament to working across the partisan divide to resolve problems for a common, shared good. A pragmatist rather than an ideologue, he received 16 presidential appointments between 1954 and 2001.
Whether it was the Commission on Civil Rights — he was a member from its founding in 1957 and served as its chair from 1969 to 1972 — or the Select Commission on Immigration and Relief Policy, the priest answered calls from Republican and Democratic occupants of the White House.
Party played no role. The principle of serving for the sake of others did.
Above all, Hesburgh was an institutionalist, someone who profoundly believed in the presidency and its central role in the life of the nation.
His work on the Civil Right Commission involved establishing rapport with four different presidents — the first and last were Republicans, with two Democratic ones in between. During a class session in 2008 when he was a visiting speaker, Hesburgh singled out Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, and Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, for their valuable collaboration with the Commission.
Hesburgh’s most significant period of governmental service spanned the quarter-century between the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. Back then, the political climate was light years from today. Partisanship was less virulent, and polarization didn’t exert its current, near debilitating, potency.
Statistics tell part of the story. Studies of voting in 1972 revealed that straight-ticket ballots and split-ticket ones were identical at 50 percent each. Four years ago, straight-ticket voting shot up to 100 percent, according to a University of Virginia political analysis of the presidential and Senate ballots cast in the states where both offices were at stake in 2016.
It’s legitimate, even intriguing, to wonder how a devout institutionalist might fare in the contemporary political environment. Would the us vs. them tribalism that makes consensus-building so arduous preclude a consensus-builder, like Hesburgh, from participating in Washington’s work today? Actually, when you think about it, it’s difficult to identify any influential bipartisan or nonpartisan commission operating now in the nation’s capital.
Still, as Hesburgh told countless campus groups and classes until his death a little over five years ago, it’s vital to vote and to stay civically engaged. Failing to exercise the franchise weakens democracy, he’d say.
During nearly four decades of teaching Notre Dame students about American politics and the media’s role in our public life, I developed an informal checklist of questions for someone to consider before casting a ballot for president. The approach, if anything, is what you might call “antipartisan” and tightly focused on the White House aspirants themselves.
In a recent book, I sketched out several questions in no particular order yet with the purposeful consistency of words beginning in the letter “c” — as in “civic.” Some specific concerns to ponder:
Credibility — Is a candidate making statements based on accurate information, so that an argument on behalf of a policy proposal has a strong, reliable foundation on which to build a government initiative or program?
Character — Is a candidate’s biography a reflection of the life and work of someone who merits civic trust and confidence on judgments affecting life and death matters for the U.S. and for the world?
Courage/Conviction — Is a candidate of sufficient strength of spine to make agonizing decisions and to see them either to their conclusion or to their modification, should any serious problems arise?
Curiosity — Is a candidate inquisitive enough about other peoples, cultures, programs and history, such that any involved questions surrounding a complicated problem will receive interpretation based on due diligence — and due intelligence?
Creativity — Is a candidate able to address and evaluate a dilemma or dispute innovatively, demonstrating an ability to think and act without restrictions that might come from an existing yet narrow framework, possibly in need of a new appraisal?
In the pre-polarized, pre-pandemic America that Hesburgh devoted himself to improving, voting possessed a quasi-sacramental dimension that he always championed. His words still echo — even as a maxim for a mask.
Bob Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor Emeritus of American studies and journalism at Notre Dame. He is the author or editor of 15 books, most recently Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record and The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump (both published by Notre Dame Press).