Albright, Ford and Kipling – Lessons Learned

Albright, Ford and Kipling – Lessons Learned

I drove over two hours with a friend in April to view Madeleine Albright’s “Read My Pins” exhibit at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  The collection included more than 200 pins from Albright’s personal collection that she acquired at jewelry shops, art galleries and flea markets around the world.

Albright wore the pins during her time as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and as Secretary of State to communicate certain messages to foreign leaders. She wrote a book about the pins, saying they emphasized the importance of a negotiation, protested a lack of progress or signified things such as hope and American pride.

“Before long, and without intending it, I found that jewelry had become part of my diplomatic arsenal,” Albright has said. “Former president George H.W. Bush had been known for saying, ‘read my lips.’ I began encouraging colleagues and reporters to ‘read my pins.’”

The journey to the museum was worth the trip.  First, it pleased me that during this time of excessive partisan politics that the museum of a Republican president would have an exhibit of the collection of a Democratic secretary of state. How refreshing! The spirit of the open-minded First Lady Betty Ford lives on, perhaps?

Of course, I loved the pin exhibit, but I enjoyed the museum, too.  It is architecturally attractive and filled with remarkable history including a section of the Berlin Wall which stands in the museum’s lobby.  In the first gallery, I was immersed in the 1970s and pop culture – video, music, news events and memorabilia – platform shoes, tie-dyed clothing, bell-bottom jeans, love beads, eight track tapes. . . Lots of nostalgia.

From that tumultuous period, the exhibit journeyed back in time to Ford’s early life – from his childhood through his congressional service.

The exhibit describes how when in his teens, Gerald Ford’s mother looked for a remedy for her son’s explosive temper.  She asked him to study Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” in part:
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting…or being hated, don’t give way to hating…
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same…
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Apparently Ford took the poem to heart and his angry outbursts ended.  “And for the rest of his life he was known as demanding more of himself than he did of others.”  What a gift his mother gave him! He learned the practical prayer of contemplating something larger than oneself whether it was God or some other inspiration. The result was a healing personal transformation which had a profound effect on him throughout his life and presidency.”

Charles Novacek, 1940

In this exhibit  I was reminded of my husband Charles.  His father taught him the poem “If”, but not because Charles had an explosive temper.  Perhaps, he felt it was the perfect advice for a son born after World War I, who could not know what triumphs and disasters lay ahead. Charles said the poem “stirred my childish soul and made me yearn to be brave and noble, so much so that I memorized it—but how could I know its message would become the cornerstone for how I would live and shape my life, and my refuge when I was oppressed? . . When I had been locked up and tortured in the Czech prison, and infested with vermin in Lechfeld in Bavaria, these verses held me up and helped me to dare to hope; they still had the same effect in the New World.”

Later after escaping his homeland and eventually living a safe life in the United States, Charles said he relied on Kipling’s poem,  as much for its inspiring words as for the memory of his father teaching it to him  and the faith he expressed in Charles’ ability to live up to its message.

. . . If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting, too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting. . .

     Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

Kipling’s “If” was not only a moral compass for Gerald Ford and Charles, but for generations of people. Winston Churchill called “If” his “spiritual autobiography” and it has been named Great Britain’s favorite poem for decades. It is printed entirely on hundreds of thousands of websites and quoted on millions. People have the poem engraved on plaques and it has been the subject of books, in movies and even made into rock songs.

The debate goes on about whether it is a great poem or not so great. But no one can deny that “If” has inspired many – to dream and to remain stoic in the face of adversity. If nothing else its message sends a strong signal that our lives are not the responsiblity of someone else. It’s up to us.

The symphonic progressive rock band Six Elements did their part by turning the poem “If–” into a song,

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