In recent days three men of note have been confronted, separately, with choices between speaking out in public or ducking. Two -- former transportation secretary Drew Lewis and Labor Secretary Bill Brock -- spoke out. The third, Vice President George Bush, took the opposite course. In more ways than one, the occasions and contrasts are instructive.
Mr. Lewis, who is now chairman of Union Pacific Railroad Co., was at his alma mater, Haverford College, to receive an honorary degree. In what has become a familiar ritual at such events, some faculty members and students took exception to the decision, somehow reached, to honor him. Their reason was his role in breaking the air traffic controllers' strike in the early part of the first Reagan term. The Friday before the Sunday commencement, the faculty members sent a letter of protest to the college's acting president. On Sunday some students passed out leaflets containing the faculty statement, and some wore white armbands as a sign of their dissent.
As such things go, it was a decorous expression. It nonetheless wounded Mr. Lewis -- who responded by shrugging out of his ceremonial hood and handing back his degree. Haverford has Quaker roots. The Quaker tradition leans in its gentle but insistent way toward composing differences rather than displaying them, and Mr. Lewis invoked it in his remarks. "I believe in consensus," he is reported to have said. "There is no consensus on this degree when one-third of your faculty objects. With great respect for the college, I return the degree."
He received a standing ovation. The school is now embarrassed, and rightly so. Too often over the years, it has been the other way around. Colleges neither are nor should be orderly places. They are diverse and highly imaginative communities. But at some point a community must stand for something -- and its disappointed members acquiesce in the result -- or its stands for nothing. Decide; then honor your decisions. That seemed to be part of what Mr. Lewis stood up to say, and not just for himself. Not a bad rule.
Mr. Brock appeared at the Teamsters convention in Las Vegas. Union president Jackie Presser has just been indicted, the fourth Teamster president out of the last five to be so blessed. It is not an enviable record, and Mr. Brock, violating the surgary polity of the occasion, met it head-on. "As secretary of labor, it isn't easy to hear about mobbed-up locals, or pension fund abuse -- misuse of members' blood and sweat. It's impossible for me to ignore that. It is necessary for you to address it . . . As a national organization, you've lost a great deal of public trust." Right on.
And now the vice president. He didn't appear before the Teamsters in person -- scheduling problem, it was said -- but couldn't quite bring himself to refuse to speak, either. He compromised, and sent a videotape instead. Not a word on it that might offend this largest of U.S. unions, with its history of support for Republican presidential candidates. Indictment? Mobbed-up? Trouble with the law? On the contrary: "Barbara and I send you our warm best wishes for a successful and productive convention." Some words of praise for the union for continuing to organize in difficult times, a recounting of the administration's successes in turning the economy around, a reference to the threat from foreign competition. "America is up to the test . . . We are second to none . . . Good luck and God bless you." Heck of a speech. Blew 'em away, he did. Us, too.