An American Passage
ON THE SOUL OF MY FATHER
by Joseph P. Shea
MONROE, N.Y., Sept. 9, 2006 -- Good morning. On behalf of my father and each member of the Shea Family, our thanks to you for being here this morning at a time which, with the passing of his brother Billy's beloved wife, Lorraine Shea, and indeed even the great matriarch of the Snee Family that gave that beautiful land to this church, that surely marks the passage of the generations.
From the era of our beloved father to this one a great deal of history has taken place, and at the time of every such passage it is appropriate and necessary that those whose lives have spanned so much of modern history speak to us about what they have seen.
From the beginning of his life near the turn of the century past, to our time, at the beginning of another, history has borne us forward from the rutted roads and open pastures of a bucolic farm to the urgent bustle and relentless energy of our own Monroe, a place that as many others are, is in the throes of constant change and facing the heat of constant challenge. And it is not different anywhere in the developed world.
That is why, when I was asked to speak this morning about my father's lifelong love of politics, I thought that the real job was to speak of what politics meant to him. As we commonly know it, politics is the fine art of reaching the compromises that make progress on any front possible despite our differences of opinion and character. And he was more than adept at that, having demonstrated it with the victory of his brother in 1954 by 64 votes in a hard-fought race for the municipal bench in Manhattan, where most of a century had passed in which the only Republican elected was his own father. But politics is part of a larger dimension, which is patriotism, and I have to tell you that patriotism infused every fiber of my father's being.
And it was not the popular fairy-tale version of patriotism that is pressed upon us from every corner today, but the deep, abiding kind that emerges from the long life of a man who not only loved but was his country. John S. Shea, Jr. soaked up the very roots of our great nation from the umbilical cord of his mother, whose family fled England long before the Revolution to escape religious persecution, and from the very seed of his forefathers, who fought for freedom and independence in Ireland before they fought here for a new version of those ideals in the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and Korea. His life, if it could ever be distilled into one single essence, would shine with love and hope for his country.
But in this temporal world, he speaks to us from a higher, native ground, and I now think it was him who inspired the words that came to me one night, "Foremost, seek clarity; first, search for the truth." For in truth, his patriotism took the form of an icy cold clarity that tried always to gaze into the often terrible face of truth. I was constantly after him to speak to me about the world as he saw it, about the past as he saw it, about our nation and its leadership as he saw it. And frankly, he saw it with an unforgiving eagle's eye never dwelled on discontent, nor dissension, nor partisanship, but always looked cooly beyond our immediate time and place to summon the visage of history itself so that he might see how time was steadily and slowly remaking it. He saw out from those cherished and well-protected roots and his observations were impeccable.
I'm afraid my comments this moning would be meaningless if I did not tell you some of what he saw. I think like the battlements of Jericho he saw this nation under siege from within and without. I think he feared that the fierce rock hammer of Satan himself was being slammed with infinite force against its battlements, and that the rage of a terrible enemy was arrayed against us outside our walls. You and I look around ourselves in this beautiful setting and perhps see no sign of that political catastrophe he believed was coming. He spoke often about "the man on horseback" he feared would bring an end to our democracy and replace it with the very tyranny his ancestors fought to escape.
We are profoundly honored today to have with us my beloved cousin, Lt. Col. Michael Kies of the United States Marine Corps, who can attest to you the truth of the rage and chaos that has overtaken much of the Middle East, where he pledged his life to bring order and sanity to a region gone mad in the torment of rapid change. My father sharply rejected the war in Iraq as an enterprise built upon the lies of a President whose personal search for revenge against Saddam had led him into errors of a Biblical proportion. I could not agree with him, but I could not argue from a moral plane against his observations, either.
While he was a strategist who told me he was once ordered by the President to devise a nuclear battle plan to strike against North Korean forces that had massed on the South Korean border when American forces were engaging almost all of our ready forces during a Tet offensive in Vietnam, he had a moral sense that informed his view of that and other conflicts, while our time, and perhaps myself, look at today's war as a strategic necessity whose morality is ill-made. That is a very typical difference of our generations.
Today we often pretend to a morality in politics we do not possess, while those who are truly moral are silent or shouted down. We adopt a strategy that has no moral content or merely a moral pretext and find ourself adrift and confused when the strategy threatens to falter or fail. In fact, I have deeply felt that what saved us from a nuclear war at that time was not the decision of the North Koreans to pull back after the President's warning, but his prayers for divine intercession, the same that guided George Washington up Orange Turnpike in the summer of 1776.
My father would not be shouted down. And he would warn us that Americans of our time need to gain a deeper insight into who we are and where we are going. He was an enemy of waste and self-indulgence and endless words. He would urge us to revisit, and not to abandon but to honor the democratic process. He would ask us to find a way to embrace our differences and love our country with our meaningful actions as one people under God. He would warn us as did George Washington - who passed this very place on those rutted roads of long ago - that we must never allow our nation to become the pawn in a war of competing partisan ideologies, but to always put God and our country first, our family next, and our party somewhere in upper echelon of other priorities. He would tell you that America is not about a fevered calculation of our interests; it is instead history's greatest idea, and one always worth fighting for.
I will share with you one more reckless insight. In his last months he had descended into an angry dementia that would erupt without warning, even as his blindness grew deeper than ever before. But in other times of the day, he was silent and calm and listened, and sometimes spoke with surprising clarity. I wondered as I prepared these words overnight whether he had not subsumed his identity to that spitting, screeching, storming eagle of the mountaintop that flies too far above us to be seen or heard. He sees beyond the battlements, beyond our shores and time, to a history relentlessly advancing upon our nation with intentions we cannot know. But he would tell us to be still, to be ready, to be watchful, to engage with passion in the great debates of our day, to be well-informed and to think deeply not only for ourselves but for our country, and to always care very much for one another. For me, and perhaps for my brothers and sister and beloved Mother, is the message of his life. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson's great essay, "On Politics," he is "the Republican at home."
Together, let us promise that we will fulfill his great vision for all of us. I leave you with his favorite and inimitable words: "Ah has spoken."
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter. He delivered this eulogy for his father at Sacred Heart Catholic Church Chapel in Monroe, N.Y., on Sept. 9, 2006.