In her book “When Character Was King” Peggy Noonan relates a little-known incident about Ronald Reagan’s hospital stay after he was shot:
When I try to tell people what Reagan was like I tell them the bathroom story. A few days after he’d been shot, when he could get out of bed, he wasn’t feeling well one night and went to the bathroom connected to his room. He slapped water on his face, and water slopped out of the sink. He got some paper towels and got on the floor to clean it up. An aide came in and said, “Mr. President, what are you doing? We have people for that.” And Reagan said oh, no, he was just cleaning up his mess, he didn’t want a nurse to have to do it. (p. 187)
Imagine the most powerful man in the world on his hands and knees cleaning up a hospital floor. Better yet, imagine you on the hospital floor – and not giving it a second thought.
We can draw dozens of lessons from this, everything from the essence of leadership and the meaning of humility to the folk wisdom of “you broke it, you fix it.” But somehow that would trivialize the matter.
Whether people agreed with his policies or not, many have come to respect Mr. Reagan because of the dignity he brought to the office. He was up to the job, but never too big for it. He knew he was not the center of the universe, that it was not about him, that he was no more than a bit player in a great cosmic purpose. In short, it was his character that made him king, as Ms. Noonan implies. How we act when no one is looking defines our character, even down to the floor of a hospital restroom.
Shortly after the assassination attempt, an event that shaped the rest of his presidency, he exclaimed that “whatever time I may have is left for Him.” (A Different Drummer, by Michael Deaver, p. 147). Not a bad goal for life. Not bad at all.
Lenny Cacchio is a resident of Lee’s Summit. He blogs at http://morningcompan- ion.blogspot.com/.