A few weeks ago I got an ancient spade out of our tool shed to do a bit of yard work. I used it to dig up two bushes—chardonais pearls—so I could move them a few feet before the Michigan snow started flying. They were crowding some peonies and my wife thought they would look nice in place of a couple of dappled willows that weren’t doing very well.
The spade I used is at least eighty years old. It belonged to my wife’s grandfather and just might have been the origin of the compliment, “They don’t make ‘em like that any more.” It digs and cuts like no garden tool I have ever touched. It feels good in my hands and—so far—has been indestructible.
Maybe my recent yard project is why the old phrase “to call a spade a spade’ came to my mind a few days ago when U.S. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona spoke about the current political situation in our country, and about our president and conservativism. Chris Cillizza of CNN called it the most important speech of 2017.
At last, I thought, an elected Republican is calling a spade a spade. Without using the president’s name, Senator Flake sharply criticized the president’s words and behavior. The heart of what he said—something so obvious that it shouldn’t have to be said, but must be said—is that Mr. Trump is tempermentaly and morally unfit to be president. I was glad to hear the speech.
Late in the carefully worded speech Senator Flake briefly explained that conservative political principles—long adhered to by most Republicans—were now out of place in the Republican party. (Flake said he will not run again for Senator.) But most of the seventeen minute speech was an unvarnished endictment of Trump, his administration and Flake’s fellow Republicans who largely continued to silently condone Trump’s dismal moral character and his carelessness about the nation’s unity and well-being. I felt that these words were at the heart of his address:
“…I rise today with no small measure of regret—regret because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by “our,” I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs.”
Flakes’s speech, having followed Senator Corker’s sharp criticism of the administration, gave me hope that other Republicans would show some spine and speak up as well. I was disappointed:
“Asked for reaction to what both Flake and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said about Trump, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told Fox News: ‘This is more of, like, a People Magazine saga.’ Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) told CNN, ‘These things are all personality-driven, and it’s unfortunate that this leaked out over into the public.’ Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) told MSNBC, ‘If we were all to chase every squirrel that comes running along in the form of a personal dispute or a mischaracterization of someone’s integrity or intent, we would be very busy doing that and not focusing on the government.’ “ (The Washington Post)
To claim that Flake was wasting words on petty issues of personality and style that were apparently transcended by the truly important issues was to avoid the plain truth. I suspect that if a Democratic president were to speak and behave as Trump is doing, the behavior would not be accepted as just a different style of leadership. It would be bitterly condemned as immoral.
I’m sure the “call a spade a spade” metaphor came to me because of my little yard project. And I think the phrase does apply to Flake’s speech in the sense that he spoke “plainly without avoiding unpleasant or embarrassing issues,” as one dictionary defines the saying.He told the simple truth. But, now that I think about it, it doesn’t apply in the sense of naming the genuine article. Flake was careful to say that Trump is certainly no genuine conservative. Perhaps I need another metaphor. The one about the emperor with no clothes? Or this, which I found from John Wayne in the movie, “Cowboys”: “Big mouth don’t make big man.”
Not that I want a genuine conservative to lead the country. At one time I was a devoted political conservative. Not so much any more. Yes, let’s watch our spending, let’s keep our country safe, and let’s let free enterprise work. But let’s not pretend the past was the repository of all things good or that less government is always better. And let’s be ready to improve the way we treat those different from us and the way we treat the earth.
I think I am like most people in that I am conservative or liberal depending on what the situation calls for. I cannot imagine a new-fangled tool that would perform like Grandpa Dyke’s spade. But I am thrilled with my replacement for the forty-year old Snapper lawnmower I gave to charity (and it still ran great!). My new Honda mows, mulches, bags leaves and starts with one easy pull. (I was a little conservative—no sense spending another $100 for an electric starter.) And with all that, reduced air pollution and gas consumption. Digging up bushes calls for one approach, mowing grass calls for another.
In politics too, some challenges call for holding to the “tried and true” while others call for new ways of thinking. But I don’t see how some situations call for less competence or moral character than others. Don’t we want as much of those as we can get? And no matter what homely metaphor we use, shouldn’t we speak up when competence and moral character are clearly absent?Share: by