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My Father’s Desk Rule

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Max Stearns

In Jewish Law, we celebrate a deceased family member on the anniversary of his or her passing. Perhaps ironically, marking death celebrates a life lived; carrying a birthday forward risks signifying potential no longer capable of being realized. My father, Herbert B. Stearns, passed away seven years ago, on October 13, 2013, corresponding to the Hebrew Date, 9 Heshvan 5781, just shy of his turning 80. His Yahrtzheit begins this evening and ends tomorrow evening.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my father recently. He was larger than life, a dedicated father and husband, and a self-educated historian and collector. He held eclectic and varied interests centered on early US history and ancient western civilization, with a special passion for ancient Jewish history. His collection, or collections, were vast, daunting actually, presenting genuine challenges to my sister and me when our mother, Audrey, passed away nearly two years later, also in her 79th year. Although we admired our father’s learning and passion in assembling and cataloguing thousands upon thousands of meaningful historical objects, ancient and modern, we also had our own passions, lives, and families.

My parents’ Florida condominium was modest, with documents, artifacts, books, and memorabilia emerging as tribbles, born pregnant, reproducing at a geometric pace. My father’s office displayed piles upon piles of newspapers and books rising like towers threatening to overtake his desk. That desk once occupied the more formal library in our childhood home. There it was more accessible, less ornamental. When my father passed away, prominently displayed on his desk was a photograph of Barack Obama, 44, the then-sitting President. For the eight year stretch from 2000 through 2008, my father, a Republican throughout my childhood, who had turned left in his later years, displayed a picture of George W. Bush, 43. My father despised George W. Bush. He regarded Bush II as committed to problematic public policies, responsible for a war he opposed, an ideologue, and generally uncultured. And so, I asked my father, why the display?

He explained his desk rule: out of respect, he displays a picture of our sitting President. I asked from whence this rule derived, and, as expected, he answered: himself. I suggested that having created the rule, my father could change it. He said he could not. And he did not.

I have always regarded the desk rule as a source of curiosity, even amusement, yet coupled with admiration. To devise a rule and stick to it, even to the point of facing daily for eight full years a leader he disdains, takes commitment. But commitment to what exactly?

In one week, we face the single most important election of our lifetimes. Calling it existential is not hyperbolic. Both my parents passed away during Obama’s second term. I understood my parents well enough to appreciate that they would have found Trump’s campaign and administration unimaginable, even obscene. It is an affront to virtually everything they ascribed as great, within their sensibilities, about America. And I’ve wondered how Trump might have affected my father’s views about George W. Bush, who in comparison comes off, however flawed, still so much better. Even those of us vehemently opposed Bush II policies find personal characteristics to admire: overcoming alcoholism, maintaining a loving marriage, forging personal connections with injured veterans of war, forming a deeply felt personal bond with First Lady Michelle Obama, raising two lovely young women in the White House.

I wonder if, in hindsight, my father’s views of George W. Bush might have softened. I also wonder if his desk rule never truly was about respecting the sitting President, but conveyed instead that no matter who that was and no matter how flawed, each man represented something larger, grander, more majestic, and more hopeful. But mostly, I wonder if he might finally have recognized that not every man, or, someday, woman, to occupy the oval office deserves such a prominent personal display. I think about my father truly honoring his desk rule by abandoning it. I imagine him explaining that he took pride in accommodating the range of such gifted yet often flawed individuals as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. But, I imagine him continuing, explaining that honoring what they represented required finally stopping, at least for a time, yet always hoping for a better future, and with it a better, wiser, more compassionate and caring, indeed more human, leader. Until then, I imagine a pause. A desk rule, perhaps not ended, but suspended.

I wish you, and us, all the best as we confront a divisive, existential moment, one week after my father’s Yahrtzheit. May his memory then, and forever, remain a blessing to us all.

I welcome your comments.

[Special thanks to Wendy Bornstein for reading and commenting.]

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