Monday, September 24, 2007

"Character," Heritage Foundation Speech, Feb. 1998

Here's the lecture:

Edwin J. Feulner, Jr.:
Ladies and gentlemen, good evening once again. We are gathered here tonight for two reasons: first, to recall and to celebrate the achievements of conservatives over the past 25 years, and second, to continue The Heritage Foundation’s 25th anniversary campaign to roll back the liberal welfare state and build an America where freedom, opportunity, and civil society flourish.

Our Leadership for America Lecture Series is a major component of that effort. It is the component designed specifically to promote a more mature understanding of basic concepts that are indispensable to a self-governing people. Lady Margaret Thatcher delivered the first of these lectures at Heritage’s December 10, 1997, gala event in Washington, DC. She spoke on the subject of courage. She spoke with such intelligence, insight, conviction, and eloquence that she was very nearly an impossible act to follow.

Tonight’s speaker, however, is fully up to that job. The crucial importance of character in our nation’s life is written in recent events. Over the past several weeks, Americans have been witnessing daily installments of a most disturbing spectacle—a presidency imploding for want of character. Our country needs to go back to basics: back to our civil, moral, and philosophical roots. We need to rediscover the core virtues that, when cultivated, entitle each of us to say, "I am proud to be an American."

In that regard, we are indeed fortunate to be able to hear tonight from a distinguished speaker. He is a man whose scholarly achievements, professional credentials, and moral character are exemplary.

Here to introduce him is another man of extraordinary distinction. He served as the 75th Attorney General of the United States under President Ronald Reagan. We are very proud indeed to call him our colleague, because he serves at The Heritage Foundation as our Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow in Public Policy. I have known and respected him for more than 25 years, not only for his incisive legal mind or for his unflagging energy in advancing the conservative cause and so many conservative organizations around the country, but mostly for his friendship and his wise counsel.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our friend Ed Meese.

Edwin Meese III:
Thank you very much, Ed, and thank you, ladies and gentlemen. It is great to be here with my Heritage colleagues and to greet you as members of the Heritage family this evening. It is a particular honor and a pleasure to have the privilege of introducing Justice Clarence Thomas as he carries on this lecture series on the principles of conservatism. Justice Thomas’s biography and all of his accomplishments are set forth in tonight’s dinner program, so I am not going to repeat them here. Instead, I would like to mention a little bit about his personal qualities and why he is so important to all of us this evening.

Now, Clarence has been a good friend of mine for a long time—a friend that I cherish. And, as those of you who have had a chance to meet him here have learned, he has a most engaging personality. He has an attribute that is very important to almost any great person, but particularly if they are in Washington, and that is a sense of humor. Indeed, he has a booming laugh that is recognizable across a crowded restaurant, where I often hear it and then see him as he entertains not only his own law clerks, but the law clerks of other Justices who find him a particularly pleasant luncheon companion.

I would suggest to you this evening that Clarence Thomas is particularly important to us because he has become a major force in shaping the constitutional, legal, and cultural destiny of our nation. During the little more than six years that he has been on the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas has distinguished himself as one of the finest writers among all of his colleagues. He has a capacity for keen legal analysis that is exceptional, and no one exceeds his adherence to fundamental constitutional principles. He understands, accepts, exemplifies, and expresses the vision that the Founders had for this nation. He relays those in his excellent opinions and, if necessary, in the dissents that he has authored so brilliantly.

He is also willing, both figuratively and literally, to take off his judicial robes and go out into the country and address, as he is doing here tonight, the moral and ethical needs of our country and its people. That is why it is so appropriate that he speak to us on this important topic of character.

I would not consider it hyperbole to say that Clarence Thomas is a student of character, the product of character, and an example of character. As a scholar on the subject, he has lectured and written widely expressing, as he did in Heritage’s Policy Review some time ago, that with the benefits of freedom come responsibilities. He said that conservatives should be no more timid about asserting the responsibilities of the individual than they should be about protecting individual rights.

As a product of character, I would say that Clarence Thomas, in a sense, comes upon his high and moral principles naturally. That is, they have been with him since childhood. He explained this at Heritage in June of 1987 when he gave a speech in which he said this about his upbringing: "My household was strong, stable, and conservative. God was central. School discipline, hard work, and knowing right from wrong were of the highest priority." He went on to say, "These were not issues to be debated by keen intellectuals, bellowed about by rousing orators, or dissected by pollsters and researchers. They were a way of life." Then he went on to explain his grandparents’ family policy. He said, "Unlike today, we debated no one about our way of life. We lived it."

I think this is a great statement of a great man.

The test of character is how one reacts to adversity and challenge as well as how he or she handles success and accomplishments. In both trials and achievements, Clarence Thomas has been an example of real character. I have observed, listened to, and read what he has said and what he has done over the past 17 years. I have admired the consistency and the integrity of his views.

This all came together in a phrase that I heard just the other day as a description of a man of character. It said, "He does not pick and chose when he applies his principles. He applies them in every situation." Whether writing a sophisticated Supreme Court opinion or addressing a group of law students, as he often does, or counseling a growing child, Justice Clarence Thomas is an outstanding advocate and example of that critical attribute, character.

Please join me in welcoming him as our distinguished speaker this evening.

The Honorable Clarence Thomas: Thank you so much for that wonderful, humbling introduction, Ed. Ed and I have been colleagues and friends for more than 15 years. In fact, I first met Ed when he spoke at a conference in San Francisco at the Fairmont Hotel in December 1980. One of the results of that conference was that so many of us who were interested in change got together and attempted to establish an organization similar to Heritage to effectuate that change, and Ed was a part of that. I appreciate that.

Although my wife Virginia, my best friend in the world, cannot be here tonight, her parents—the two people who were good enough to give her to me—are here. If you do not mind, I would like to introduce them: Marjorie and Donald Lamp. I have to thank them publicly for a wonderful, wonderful wife and for being an integral part of the happiest years of my life. They have been central to some very good times and some wonderful happiness. They also exemplify what we are talking about tonight—character. It is written not only on them individually, but on their family and friends.

Now, tonight I would like to talk with you, not preach at you or lecture you. I would like to talk to you in much the same way I talk to myself, and I think in talking to you, I wind up talking to myself. I am not good at talking at length about what is wrong with the world. I think that is depressing. Had I been allowed or disposed to do so, I think I would still be in Savannah. I know that we are not here tonight to wallow in what is wrong. If I sound as though I am lecturing you, please take it that I am lecturing myself, not you.

I am deeply honored that I have been invited to deliver the second in a series of 15 lectures celebrating The Heritage Foundation’s 25th anniversary. Ed Feulner and so many of my dear friends who have joined him at Heritage have long been at the center of the debate about the direction of our country and our world. I applaud them for always discussing serious matters with the gravitas that issues of great consequence demand. I am honored beyond measure to follow Lady Thatcher, who lectured this past December on courage. Who better to give that lecture?

It is hard to believe that The Heritage Foundation is only 25 years old. It seems to have been in existence for the entirety of my involvement in the affairs of our nation. Indeed, when I arrived in Washington in the summer of 1979 burning with enthusiasm, burning with passion and interest in our government, Heritage was one of the major sources of informative essays, studies, and briefings.

My most memorable, early participation in a Heritage event was a "Growth Day" program in the spring of 1980. That program was a response to the "Earth Day" celebrations. Of course, it was the first time I met Walter Williams—a character, a gentleman, and a scholar. It was a wonderful afternoon. Of course, who did not receive a copy of Mandate for Leadership in 1980 after the election of President Reagan? We all read, debated, and ran from meeting to meeting with that publication and its ideas. Later, as a member of President Reagan’s Administration, I attended many wonderful events at Heritage.

I also delivered a memorable (at least for me) speech on black conservatives in 1987 in the Lewis Lehrman Auditorium. That speech, though hardly attended or covered by the press when given, was widely disseminated as evidence of my still yet-to-be-announced views on abortion. I re-read that speech recently, and I am still at a loss how one could find such evidence in that speech. Perhaps it is guilt by association with Lew Lehrman. Or maybe—just maybe—it’s that vast right-wing conspiracy again, or perhaps that vast left-wing conspiracy.

Mrs. Jellyby's Telescope

We live in an age of unprecedented prosperity, unprecedented freedom, and opportunity. The Iron Curtain of communism has been raised in most of the world, permitting those who have too long languished in the dark shadow it cast to taste some measure of freedom. In our country, record levels of economic growth have sparked creation of many new jobs and businesses. Scientific and technological developments that were incomprehensible just 15 or 20 years ago have provided so many of us with healthier and easier lives. There is, in short, much for which we should all be thankful.

As with any other time in human history, all is not well with our society. Even as the stock market has soared to unimaginable heights and interest rates have dropped to equally unimaginable depths, we hear much alarming talk about the state of morals and virtue as well as the state of our culture. There seems to be an unprecedented amount of commentary about what drives human nature and much discussion about various virtues such as responsibility, hard work, humility, honesty, discipline, and, occasionally, self-control.

Echoing this concern, a number of influential books and articles also have been published recently that detail the radical changes that have taken place in our nation’s popular culture since the 1960s. Many of these books maintain that the cultural elites in government, the courts, universities, the media, and the entertainment industry are responsible for a decline in traditional values. Often, these critics of modern culture point to the considerable degeneration of morals and virtues among the least fortunate in our society.

They are certainly right in pointing out that our culture is facing any number of serious problems. And while I share their deep concern, I wonder if we are not allowing ourselves to point fingers at others rather than look to ourselves for solutions. I often ask myself whether I am content to see the problem in my neighbor rather than in myself.
"The two great heroes of my life--my grandparents-- were honest, hardworking people who lived a simple, honest life with clear rules. They embody for me all that character could or should mean."

So much of today’s cultural criticism blames institutions beyond our control for the decline in virtue. As a result, we may understandably be tempted to say that the problem is over there with the media and the universities. The cultural elites are destroying our younger generation’s appreciation for self-discipline and self-sacrifice. These cultural institutions need to "clean up their act." For those who seem unable to function in this society, we may be tempted to wash our hands and conclude that they should return to work and that they should adopt the work ethic and a life of virtue—in other words, be like us.

In a sense, we become much like Mrs. Jellyby in the Charles Dickens novel Bleak House. She was content to throw herself wholeheartedly and enthusiastically into her distant philanthropic projects involving fan-makers and flower girls, but was unconcerned about her unkempt children, her filthy house, neglected husband, or the starving beggar at the door.

Her telescopic philanthropy is perhaps our telescopic criticism. Our view of the task to be undertaken and the goal to be attained is magnified and ambitious, far beyond just the beggar at the door and the more modest or personal challenges. Somehow, we find it more comfortable and safer to tackle someone else’s problem rather than ours. And we are more at ease discussing the larger cultural problems that we are less capable of directly solving than we are at finding what we can do on a daily basis to make a difference. It is much easier to get worked up about others and the seemingly intractable universal problems than it is to get worked up about ourselves or, to paraphrase Thomas Carlyle, the duties which lie nearest us.

It is no wonder that we seem so despondent about the prospects for a revival in traditional virtue. We fret and complain about the extent of the problem and, feeling helpless, suggest that there is nothing we can personally do to restore the culture. We are reduced to longing for the good old days when responsibility, self-sacrifice, and politeness were hallmarks taken for granted, or at least not questioned. We retire to the insular compounds of our private lives, mumbling to ourselves and preaching to the choir.

This is not to suggest that there are not times when it is imperative to be concerned about larger, more complicated matters. Nor is this to deny that there are times when we must issue the clarion call to action or point an accusatory finger at some wrongdoer and demand that he mend his ways. But understandably, there can be too many calls and too much finger-pointing. Somehow, we all know that there are only so many times that we can claim that the sky is falling and expect to have anyone but fellow travelers believe us. In the end, no matter how momentarily relieved we are to sound the alarm, we have the discomforting sense that it will ultimately be by our example, not our criticism, that we change hearts and minds.

My Grandfather's Solemn Promise

That brings me to our subject—character. In a sense, we all know exactly what we are thinking about when we talk about a person’s character. Throughout most of our lives, character, like family or marriage, needed no definition. We knew exactly what we meant. It is quite telling today that what was taken for granted or understood by all must now be directly discussed. In short, we now find it necessary to define what, in the not-so-distant past, needed neither a clear definition nor discussion at all.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "character" as "the moral qualities strongly developed or strikingly displayed; distinct or distinguished character; character worth speaking of." Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary similarly defines character as "an individual’s pattern of behavior or personality; moral constitution...moral strength; self-discipline, fortitude." Most of us are more contextual when we think about or speak of character. For example, a person of character is a pillar of his family and community and, I might add, leads by example.
"It is the small things we do each day, the often mundane and routine tasks that form our habits, and seem to have the most lasting impression on our fellow man."

As hard as I try, I cannot discuss the issue of character, or much that is of lasting importance to me, without referring to two great heroes of my life—my grandparents. They were honest, hard-working people who lived a simple, honest life with clear rules. They embody for me all that character could or should mean. They were "bound and determined," in their words, to raise us right. Their rules were in plain English: "Always say good morning." "Speak when spoken to." "Tell the truth." "Never let the sun catch you in bed." I had the opportunity to ask my brother if he could remember the sun catching us in bed, and he could not.

Other counsel: "Put a handle on grownups’ names—Miss Mariah, Cousin Bea, Cousin Hattie, or Miss Gertrude." One of my grandfather’s favorite admonitions, always spoken in a deep baritone voice with the seriousness of the last judgment, was: "If you lie, you’ll steal. If you steal, you’ll cheat. If you cheat, you’ll kill." This slippery slope was clear, and the final resting place of one who ventured to its precipice was so clear that the first step demanded disproportionate punishment—which I received.

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Reagan Fellow Ed Meese, Justice Thomas, Vice President John Von Kannon, and Executive Vice President Phil Truluck talking before the Heritage 25 Palm Beach lecture.

Above all, even while we were in the early years of grammar school, my grandfather made one solemn promise that underscored our life with him and my grandmother: "I will never tell you to do as I say, not as I do. I will only tell you to do as I do." Even as, unlike today, there were very clear lines between what a child could do and what an adult did do, both my grandparents lived up to that promise. Though I cannot say that he did not talk constantly about what was expected of his two boys, he insisted that we "follow" him in the fullness of that term.

Because of some recent changes in our household that parallel those days, it is only now that I have come to understand fully the very conscious decision he made. He disallowed activities that kept us away from him and required that we be in his presence and under his tutelage virtually the entire time we were not in school. He said he would teach us to work, with all that that means and entails: discipline, conscientiousness, high standards, punctuality. He said we must learn how to be men, so he showed us by being one. The physical man made babies; the real man raised them.

It is often said that little people have big eyes and big ears. But with the biggest ears and eyes for hypocrisy—even during our questioning teenage years—we found no hypocrisy.

They were temperate in their drinking, modest in their dress, frugal in their spending. As someone from my generation might have said some years ago, "They talked the talk and walked the walk." They focused on what they could do—the seemingly small things that in the short term maintained order, but in the long term built character.

Perhaps they understood implicitly what Aristotle concluded: We acquire virtues in much the same way that we acquire other skills—by practicing the craft: "[S]o also, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions." As James Q. Wilson observes: "A good character arises from the repetition of many small acts, and begins early in youth. That habituation operates on a human nature innately prepared to respond to training…." In leading by example, they both showed us how to live our lives and at the same time further perfected their own character by doing so.

Leading by Example

We all have played similar roles in the lives of those close to us. We lead by deeds as well as by words. Our respective families and communities are better off for our efforts. Also, we participate in the affairs of the institutions closest to us, such as our churches, our places of employment or businesses, schools, charitable organizations, and civic associations. Surely, we know we have helped someone. It is through these attachments that we can lead by example and give others—especially the poor and less fortunate—the wisdom, strength, and opportunity they need to live a life of morals and manners.

There are also the efforts that give each of us the opportunity to enhance and develop our own character. But the effort starts with those of us who should and do know our obligations. It requires our best efforts and our example of good character to help ensure that others, and each of us, follow the path of virtue.
"We all have a tendency to attack the powerful institutions of our society as the source of the moral decay in our culture. But each individual has his own battle to wage for control of his own soul and character."

Just as it is frustrating and difficult to observe the decline of virtuous conduct, how much more frustrating must it be for those who live with the awful consequences of the lack of virtue. For them, it must be overwhelming to accept this accumulated responsibility or to persevere in the face of adversity. But useful models—namely, people of character—can help to inculcate virtue by exhibiting moral strength to do what is right despite frustration, despite fear, despite temptation or inconvenience.

This calls to mind a wonderful little prayer asking for the strength to set a good Christian example for others: "Lord, you have reminded us that we, who bear your name as Christians and are followers of you, are like a city set upon a mountain and like a light that cannot be hid. You have told us to so let our light shine before men that, seeing our works, they may honor our Father in heaven for what they behold in us." Those who are supposedly without virtue certainly need to know that it makes a difference to be virtuous. They will only learn that from those who are already living virtuous lives—a part of which is to help lead others.

One of the advantages of living in a free, democratic society is that each day we all have many opportunities to be leaders simply by living virtuous lives. Voluntary associations such as families, churches, and small communities expand the reach of those who lead and who show others how to do so. The relationships we foster through these voluntary associations reaffirm for us that we are doing what is right not only by leading and helping others, but also by being virtuous as we do so.

That is the way it was growing up in Georgia. When someone down the road fell upon hard times, or when sickness beset a family, or when a hurricane or fire destroyed or damaged someone’s house, people instinctively helped in whatever small way they could. Not helping was unthinkable. Good people practiced good deeds, which helped provide for the community’s temporal needs and, in the long run, created an atmosphere that encouraged hard work, integrity, and charity among the young.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with Richard M. DeVos, co-founder of the Amway Corporation, and his wife, Helen, at the Heritage 25 "Leadership for America" lecture.

Now let us imagine a world where most of us looked to someone else, such as government, to do what we as neighbors, family, friends, and citizens ought to do. Who, may I ask, becomes more virtuous? Such a dependency on the state severs those ties that bind us together and that make each of us more virtuous. That would be a world where, unfortunately, the opportunities to lead by example and thereby inculcate virtues would seem less important. An essential element of the human spirit would be lost.

Unfortunately, that is perhaps closer to where we are today.

Having the character that will lead others to a path of virtue does not require extraordinary intelligence, a privileged upbringing, or significant wealth. Nor, for that matter, is character a matter of accomplishing extraordinary feats or undertaking magnanimous acts. Looking back on the lives of my grandparents—who were barely able to read and saddled with the burdens of segregation—I have come to realize that people of every station in life can influence the world in which we live. But for them, where would my brother and I be?

It is the small things we do each day, the often mundane and routine tasks, that form our habits and seem to have the most lasting impression on our fellow man. Saint Therese of Lisieux and Mother Teresa both spoke of the power of this simple path: the practice of small acts of kindness, forbearance, and charity.

This kind of leadership, of course, is not always easy or gratifying. We know it is often difficult to work hard, exhibit politeness, remain honest, and so forth. We are bound to lose our patience with others or show some selfishness on occasion, but vigilance with respect to the small matters of life often demands self-sacrifice. Honesty, charity, and responsibility can, in other words, come at a price.

We will, at times, simply lack the determination to bear the cost. Trying to lead by example will be a humbling experience because we see firsthand how easily we succumb to our own weaknesses. But this humility, in turn, helps us to understand the plight of others and makes us a little more willing to come to the aid of the less fortunate whose challenges are far greater than ours.

It may well be that it is more difficult today than years ago to lead by example when there is no discernible, immediate benefit or gratification. This may be especially true at this time in our history when it appears customary to expect some personal gain or some personal gratification from our actions. So it is entirely conceivable that, in a culture that now places such an emphasis on instant gratification, it is easier to fall prey to the tendency only to practice virtue that results in some immediate benefit to us.

But what happens, for example, when forgiveness is encouraged primarily, or only, because it makes us feel better or feel good? Or when we think of charity principally in terms of how good it makes us feel about ourselves? Or when we place less of a premium on simple manners and basic morals because there are more important things at hand to worry about? Practicing virtue only when it makes us feel good or when it is convenient somehow does not quite sound virtuous—unless, of course, one can say that self-interest or some psychic rewards are themselves virtues. Somehow we know almost intuitively that neither of these is a virtue and that the real road to virtue, especially in today’s climate, can be lined with seemingly pointless and thankless drudgery. Doing good deeds and hard work day in and day out for the good of others, as well as for our own good, is habit-forming and ultimately builds character for them and for us.

Temptation of Victimhood

I know that there has been much important debate lately about the broader cultural war—the preoccupation with self-indulgence and other vice. Many recently published books, a number of them written by friends and people whom I greatly admire, paint a grim and sober picture of our culture. Having a serious discussion about the global problems besetting our leading institutions in popular culture is no doubt very, very valuable. However, we also must not lose sight of the fact that each individual has his own battle to wage for control of his own soul and to attain character.

Each time we are unwilling to pay the price of assuming responsibility or demonstrating charity because of our own self-interest, our own self-indulgence, or our lack of virtue, we mortgage—for some tiny amount of gratification—our souls, our culture. Perhaps we lose our own moral compass and fall prey to the broader cultural vices; at the very least, we no longer are as the kind of beacon to help our fellow man discover the path to virtue.

Samuel Smiles, the British author of an enormously influential book from the Victorian era titled Self-Help with Illustrations of Conduct, made this point quite powerfully when he said: "National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice. What we are accustomed to decry as great social evils will, for the most part, be found to be but the outgrowth of man’s own perverted life."

As I conclude, I note that there is an important lesson here. We all have a tendency to attack the powerful institutions of our society as the source of the moral decay in our culture. Sometimes the rhetoric sounds as though we believe our communities are under assault by the popular press, the universities, and the entertainment industry. Though that may be true, we must be careful not to succumb to the temptation to be victims while simultaneously requiring virtuous conduct on the part of the less fortunate—including, I might add, that they not be victims and that they take responsibility for themselves. We have it within us to influence the many lives we do and should touch every day, including our own lives.

As Saint Thomas `a Kempis wrote more than 500 years ago: "Control circumstances, and do not allow them to control you. Only so can you be a master and ruler of your own actions, not their servant or slave, a free man." Though a free society permits character to flourish, the society itself will not survive without people of character who can foster virtue through example.

As Edmund Burke rightly observed: "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.…" Burke understood, in other words, that a free society depends upon ordinary citizens demonstrating honesty, integrity, sobriety, and forbearance—that, in the words of Hippolyte Taine, "every man [be] his own constable." So long as there are people of character who have the will to lead and have faith in our fellow man, there is hope that we will remain a free, prosperous nation.

So, in answer to the cynically asked and perhaps rhetorical question of recent vintage, "Does character matter?" the answer is emphatically "Yes." Character is all that matters. Our character.

Thank you, and God bless you.

Edwin J. Feulner, Jr.: Ladies and gentlemen, we have just heard what I would describe as a really brilliant presentation on the centrality of character to the strength, the well-being, and even the survival of our democratic system of government. If the United States is not just a democracy, if in fact we are a capitalist democracy, the question must be asked: What is the link between character and capitalism, morality and the marketplace?

No one is better qualified to answer this question than our next speaker, Rich DeVos. Rich is the co-founder of Amway, which I am sure everyone in the room knows is one of the largest and most successful privately held companies in the United States. Moral values are at the heart of Rich DeVos’s story, and they form the core of his approach both to business and to his life.

Rich was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1926. His parents were serious Christians who raised him in the traditions of the Christian Reformed Church. I am going to quote from one of his books: "There were times when I resisted that tradition with all my young heart and soul, but Mom always won. My parents and a long list of pastors, teachers, deacons, elders, and lay volunteers were passing on to me life’s greatest gift—a road map to follow on my journey toward eternity and a source of strength and comfort on the way."

Rich DeVos enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and after returning to civilian life in 1946, he and his lifelong friend Jay Van Andel—a long-time Heritage Foundation trustee—went into various businesses together. By 1959, working out of the basements of their homes in Ada, Michigan, they had founded Amway, which went on to become one of the great success stories in American business history. Today, Amway produces and sells more than 400 products. Its gross sales last year are supposed to be a secret since it is a privately held company, but they are estimated by various magazines to have been over $7 billion, and Amway is, I believe, the largest or second largest U.S. exporter to Japan. Anyone who thinks you cannot break into the Japanese market should talk to Rich DeVos.

Over the years, Rich has become America’s leading spokesman for what he calls "compassionate capitalism, which is the title of his 1993 book. I have a long quote from Compassionate Capitalism—which I will not read, however; I would much rather hear it directly from Rich.

Let me close this introduction with a personal vignette. It took place last April. Linda and I were on our way to a meeting in Switzerland, and we were in London. We called our good friend John Gartland, who runs the Amway office in Washington, and asked if we could call on Rich DeVos in London. Rich was in London waiting for a heart, literally. He was waiting for a heart transplant.

Linda and I visited with Rich and his wife, Helen, in their hotel room where they had been more or less cooped up for three or four months. After our very enjoyable visit with them, we were riding in the taxi back to our hotel. I commented to Linda at the time, not that Rich was calm and tranquil, which we expected since his heart had not been functioning quite up to normal, but that in fact Rich DeVos was a man who was at peace with himself. There was a peacefulness and serenity about Rich DeVos. He knew that whatever the Lord had in store for him as he awaited this great challenge was going to be in the overall right scheme of things.

Well, he got the heart. He returned to Grand Rapids. And there are people here tonight from Grand Rapids who sent me the pictures from the front page of the Grand Rapids newspapers on the day he arrived back home.

His new lease on life has made him more determined than ever, I believe, to carry out his life’s mission—a mission that he established years before that surgery last year. Part of that mission has been his involvement in contributing generously to a host of worthy causes, and part of it has been counseling one-on-one the players of the Orlando Magic, his National Basketball Association team. But a very large part of it has also been his mission in spreading the message about capitalism.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a real honor for me to ask our good friend Rich DeVos to come up and comment on Clarence Thomas on character.


The Honorable Richard DeVos:
You cannot follow Clarence Thomas. All you do is get out of the way. Ed, thank you for your kind words, and I salute you on this great anniversary. I have known you a long time, and I have always been thrilled by the work of The Heritage Foundation—you know that.

After all those nice words, I just have a few comments. Number one: What I really am is a sinner, saved by the grace of God. And all of my comments come from that foundation. I know how bad I am, and I know the things that I have done wrong, and I know that God forgave me.

I also took this invitation because I want to thank many of you for your prayers on my behalf. All through that rather long ordeal, I was at peace, as Ed pointed out. I knew the Lord’s hand was upon me.

I know I sound as if I am giving you a sermon, but that is exactly what I want to do. That is what character is all about, and that is the foundation of character in my opinion. Some people think that they have character and then they say that they do not believe in God. I do not know how people can get character if they do not believe in God. If you do not believe in God and the Ten Commandments, then anything goes and nothing matters. That is the foundation of all values and all character to me, and I know it is to Justice Thomas as well. I have heard him speak many times, and he thrills me every time.

I do want to tell you a little bit about my heart—not to show you my scars or anything. I was on the AIDS Commission under President Reagan, when we gave him our final report, and I added this one sentence to my signature at the end of the report: "Actions have consequences." I then added this line: "And you are responsible for yours."

I had always heard "Actions have consequences" and "Ideas have consequences." I was so disturbed by all the testimony I had heard—the irresponsibility of many of the witnesses, their lack of accountability, and lack of responsibility for their own actions. They were very busy pointing their fingers at government and others, but it was not their fault. You and I know that this disease is a voluntary disease for many people. Not everybody, I understand. So, that is exactly what the Justice was talking about today: And you are responsible for your actions.

I used to give a talk many years ago on actions. Actions, in my experience, are the result of attitude. And attitude was always the result of atmosphere. I called my talk "The Three A’s." If you are in a bad atmosphere, you are going to have a bad attitude and you are going to take bad actions. It is just what the Justice was talking about.

Now, I grew up in a Christian high school, and I was not much of a student. I was concerned at that time because I was branded as not too bright. I never made anybody’s honor roll, and no one ever felt that I should even take pre-college courses because I was told that I was probably not smart enough. So when they talk about national testing today, there are a lot of good reasons I believe it should not happen, but I will not talk about that tonight. I believe when they start national testing, they start bringing in people and telling them that they are not qualified, or they are not bright, or they are not smart enough. To me, one of the greatest dangers is to put a label on people and tell them that they are not smart enough.

Fortunately, when I graduated from high school (and I did get through), I took one semester of Latin. I passed it on the condition that I would never take it again. We had a minister who taught Bible classes in that school, and he was a great man. He wrote in my yearbook, when I finally graduated, a line I never forgot. He wrote, "With talents for leadership in God’s kingdom." What a line. I never thought of myself as a leader. I thought of myself as kind of a lousy student who was not destined for much, and he said I had leadership ability. It hit me like a ton of bricks—like it must hit all of us. That is what the Justice was talking about—the responsibility to be leaders in our communities and our homes.

All of us have to be leaders, and we have to train our children to be leaders. We may be nothing more than leaders of our family, but leadership is something we have to take on as a responsibility everywhere we go. For example, the Justice and I were talking tonight, and he said, "You ought to watch these young people who are waiting your table. They are watching you. They are going to watch everything you do." They are watching everything you do, because you and I create the atmosphere.

Forty years after my teacher wrote in my yearbook, I saw him at a reunion and said to him, "Dr. Greenway, you wrote something in my yearbook 40 years ago." He stood up and said, "Don’t tell me. I’ll tell you what I wrote in that yearbook." And he quoted that line back to me. He is dead now, but then I wondered afterwards if he wrote that in every kid’s yearbook.

About one year ago, my doctors came to me and said you are not going to live very long, but we do have an alternative for you. You can go to London, and maybe we can find a heart for you. However, certain conditions have to be met. So Helen and I prayed about it. We thought about it and said let’s go.

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Richard DeVos and Heritage President Dr. Feulner talking before the Heritage 25 "Leadership for America" lecture.

The first condition was whether or not the doctor would even take me for a transplant patient. They do not do heart transplants on 71-year-old guys. They save hearts for younger people. I have had a heart attack and two bypass surgeries. I have had a stroke. I am diabetic. You know, I am a basket case. Would you take a chance on a guy like that? By the grace of God, he did.

Now why did that happen? We had family. We had all of our kids and grandchildren in that room with the doctor, and he decided he could not withstand all of us. He said, "You have a reason to live." You know, that is what family does for you when you keep your family close. All the time we waited in London, as Ed was talking about, one of our children was always there to stay with their mother. If and when they ever found a heart and I went to the hospital, they would be there, and they would hold her hand.

During these five months we waited, we had wonderful times to talk to each other—to face death squarely. I used to say that if I were going to die in two minutes, what would I tell my kids or my wife? There is nothing. I have shown them and told them everything I could tell them anyway. We did not have to go over that ground anymore. So we were at peace with it. Whether I live or whether I die, I know where I am going.

I wondered why the Lord wanted me. He has kept me alive for a reason. I am not absolutely clear on that, but I think it is to be a witness to him in many ways.

Now, we waited for five months to find a heart that would meet these conditions outlined to me. I had to have a heart with an AB blood type. I had to have a tissue match. I had to have a strong right-sided heart because, for whatever reason, I had a back pressure in my heart. So it had to be a very unique heart. It would have to be a heart that would fit me. It had to be a heart that no one else in England or all of the United Kingdom who was available to receive it could use. All those things had to occur, even as my heart was failing. When they took my heart out, they said that it was the worst heart they had ever taken out of anybody.

Now, you talk about God’s timing and the miracle of bringing all of these forces together at one time, and you just know that God’s hand is upon us. It was upon me, just as His hand has been upon this country for all of its history. So I want to encourage you, God is still in charge. I know we have some unhappiness, but let’s face it folks: He is in charge. And it is up to us to go forward in faith and be those leaders we ought to be.

I Am Wrong

I have some one-liners that I have used all my life, and I will share them with you, and I will end. My one-liners are: "I am wrong." It is a miraculous thing when you can say "I am wrong" because we are all wrong. We are wrong a lot of times, but we do not say it easily. Learn to say it, especially to your children: "I am wrong."

We have a young son—he is not so young anymore; he is in his thirties. He came in late one night, and I was waiting at the door for him. He had heard me make this speech on "I am wrong" and "I am sorry," and he came busting through the door, and he knew that I was waiting. He said: "I am wrong, and I am sorry." Now, what do you do with a kid like that? Nothing. So you do not spend your life finding fault with people who can admit they are wrong and get on with it. We spend too much of our life finding fault and blaming each other.

The other lines are lines like "I am proud of you," "You can do it," "I salute you," "I believe in you," "I respect you." These are lines you ought to put in your vocabulary. You should use them all day long.

When you are new in business, you write letters that say things like "In addition, in reference to your letter of so-and-so.…" Then you get someone to type all that out. I used to do that until I finally moved to a little notepad that said "No," or it said "Yes." I used to send along little notes saying "You can do it" or "I am proud of you." Years later, people would tell me, "You know your note is still on my refrigerator door." The little notes of thanks you send to your school teachers, your grandchildren, or to your own children are blazing in their life forever because so few people take the trouble to tell them they are proud of them. That is something you and I can all do every day, everywhere. I do not care if it is the bellhop or the waiter here tonight or friends with you. We all need that little lift and that word of encouragement.

I am proud to be an American. All the while Helen and I waited, we referred to Philippians 4: 4-7 every day. In Philippians 4 it says: "Rejoice, always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again, rejoice. Let everyone see that you are considerate in all that you do. Remember the Lord is coming soon. Do not worry about anything—instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus." This is the message of hope that we must give to our children.

We recently had the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Bill Owen, with us, and he told me a story. He said right after the Berlin Wall came down, he took one of the big Navy ships into the Black Sea and went into one of the ports in Bulgaria. It was the first time in 50 years that an American flag had flown in that part of the world. He said as they pulled in there and tied the boat up, he left the gangway and went down. He looked and saw a man down in the front of the boat leaning with both hands up against it—an old man. So he told the skipper, "Take me down there. I want to talk to him." He asked the old man why would he lean on this boat? The man said, "Admiral, my friends are dead. Most of my family is gone, Admiral. I’ve been waiting for you for 50 years to come here and give us some hope."

That is what America is all about, and that is why we must conduct ourselves in such a way as Justice Thomas was talking about. We must continue to give that hope to other Americans as well as to other people in the world who are waiting so desperately for it.

Justice Thomas, thank you for sharing your heart and your love with us, and thank you for being on that Court. You are such a great tribute to all of us. We are so proud of you, and we love you very much. Thank you.

Clarence Thomas

Justice Clarence Thomas was born in the community of Pin Point near Savannah, Georgia, on June 23, 1948. He married Virginia Lamp on May 30, 1987, and has one child, Jamal Adeen, by a previous marriage. He attended Conception Seminary from 1967–1968 and received an A.B., cum laude, from Holy Cross College in 1971 and a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1974. Admitted to law practice in Missouri in 1974, Justice Thomas served as an Assistant Attorney General of Missouri from 1974–1997, as an attorney with the Monsanto Company from 1977–1979, and as a Legislative Assistant to Senator John Danforth from 1979–1981. He also served as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, from 1981–1982 and as Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1982–1990. From 1990–1991, he was a Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Nominated to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by President George Bush, Mr. Thomas took his seat on October 23, 1991.

Rich DeVos

Richard A. DeVos is co-founder and until recently was President of Amway, one of the world’s largest privately held companies, with over three million independent distributorships throughout the world. He currently serves as Chairman of the Orlando Magic NBA basketball team. Mr. DeVos is known as an outstanding entrepreneur, business executive, community leader, philanthropist, speaker, and writer. His recorded talk, "Selling America," has received many awards, including the Alexander Hamilton Award for Economic Education from the Freedoms Foundation. He is the author of the best-selling books Believe! and Compassionate Capitalism. He also has a long record of service in community, public policy, education, and religious activities, as recognized by the numerous honors and awards he has received.

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