The tributes to the late congressman and civil rights pioneer John Lewis provided a marvelous civic education about a shining example of activism on principle, at least for those still open to being educated. One does not have to be of a particular political party or philosophy to admire the character and conscience Lewis displayed over a long and uncommonly impactful life. It seems certain that the phrase “good trouble” is going to be part of our national vocabulary, whenever our discourse rises up out of the partisan sandbox or the social media sludge pool. The bipartisan eulogies delivered were filled with respect, remembrance, and reflection. Again, these crossed lines of party and ethnic distinction.
One reflection in particular should have touched the hearts and souls of Pennsylvanians, because it was penned by Tom Ridge, who for a time was a colleague of Lewis.
Tom Ridge has more in common with John Lewis than shared congressional time. He is no slouch when it comes to sterling public service credentials. Military service in Vietnam, earning a Bronze Star. A stint as assistant DA. Six terms in Congress. Nearly seven years as an effective, productive, and respected Pennsylvania governor. First director of the federal Department of Homeland Security. Throughout that lifetime of service, Ridge demonstrated capacity for action grounded in personal conviction. In many ways, he epitomizes Theodore Roosevelt’s man in the arena.
Ridge’s generation was inclined to rise to the occasion in putting actions consistent with constitutional rights and responsibilities ahead of words of political bravado and convenience. As governor, when politics was still a formidable concern, Tom Ridge joined in a counter demonstration to the KKK in Carlisle. He picked the side he believed right and went to the scene when the outcome was in doubt; no misdirection messages issued from afar about good people on both sides.
It is remarkable and admirable that, even after a near-death health episode, he is not content to go quietly into the good night. He is still standing tall for the values that were widely counted as American virtues. He is actively engaged in causing good trouble.
Exhibit A occurred back in the spring. For a veteran such as Ridge, it was obviously quite grating to see well-armed Americans marching under a faux crusade to “liberate” states from health-saving restrictions put in place by governors committed to public safety. Oh, and who happened to be Democrats. He did not dispute anyone’s right to gather and protest. He pointed out the methods and manner were faulty, but not the exercise of rights.
Not long after Lewis’s passing, Ridge had an opinion piece run in his hometown Erie paper. The title did not have anyone searching for hidden meanings: “Republicans must fully denounce racism.” Direct, declarative, and principled. The concluding line was equally so: “Let our own consciences be our guide.” How many self-styled leaders today do we hear talking about matters of conscience? How many are willing to risk inching even a step or two away from the party line?
On 9/11, USA Today carried a sternly worded piece by Ridge in which he emphasized the responsibility of intelligence officials to give the president an unvarnished evaluation of the threats facing our country, rather than something doctored to square with a preferred political narrative. Here again, the record shows personal conviction preceding his warning. Ridge resigned from Homeland Security when he disagreed with actions taken by top officials within the White House. That is staying true to your principles.
Now comes his involvement in commendable efforts to ensure maximum voter participation in elections. He refuses to be complicit in efforts to suppress votes that might not register in his party’s column. Or into scaring opposition voters into staying home. If as many people are registered as possible, are given the means of access to voting as their circumstances warrant, and are assured their votes are counted no matter the manner of delivery, then elections come down to personalities and records and issues. Elections are less prone to becoming a competition for who is more brazen at throwing sand in the machinery and manipulating the results.
A recent constructive step was a letter to the states he wrote in conjunction with former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, because voting rights and electoral integrity are meant to be a gain for democracy and not a weapon for partisan advantage.
People are free to, and do, disagree with Ridge’s positions and words, irrespective of his title and place of service. That comes with the territory of being a public figure. As my long-time colleague Mike Long was fond of pointing out, Ronald Reagan was the most popular president in our lifetime, and on any given day one-third of Americans could not stand him.
What is indisputable, from my vantage point, is that Ridge adheres to standards of ethical conduct, displaying a brand of honesty and honor that seems distressingly rare these days. He never seemed prone to petty grievances, vendettas, or relentless self-promotion. On the few occasions when he attempted a bit of showmanship, it did not work out because it was unnatural to him.
There are a lot of folks who lay claim to titles such as leader, patriot, and hero merely by engaging in political theater and espousing misinformation and hate speech. It is here we have the most telling contrast.
Tom Ridge is proudly displaying that there is still a place in our national discourse for character, courage, and conviction. It strikes that in doing so, he has picked up the mantle from two of his friends: John Lewis and his fellow veteran John McCain, with whom he had a long and close association.
David A. Atkinson is a Research Associate with the Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies at the Susquehanna Valley Center.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Susquehanna Valley Center.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.