The weekend that Ronald Reagan died was a fine occasion to reflect on the often forgotten and misunderstood virtue of modesty.
The word now is habitually linked with women’s clothing —– how short the skirt, how revealing the neckline — as some of us in the Seattle area were reminded this past Sunday by “Pure Fashion,” the first ever (as far as I know) “modest” fashion show. The show resulted from a truly wonderful letter written by a little girl, Ella Gunderson, to Nordstrom, the department store chain headquartered here:
“Dear Nordstrom, I am an 11-year-old girl who has tried shopping at your store for clothes (in particular jeans), but all of them ride way under my hips, and the next size up is too big and falls down.
“I see all these girls who walk around with pants that show their belly button and underwear. Your clerks suggest that there is only one look. If that is true, then girls are supposed to walk around half-naked. I think you should change that.”
The executive ranks of the store got excited about the idea and wrote back that they would immediately take action to augment their collection of modest clothing. Ella’s mother organized the fashion show, which packed in approximately 250 people at the Hyatt Regency in suburban Bellevue.
I mention this local story because it hints at the possible revival of a cultural shift that began in the late 1990s with Wendy Shalit’s book “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” but also because it’s important to remember that modesty means something more than just covering up midriffs and tucking thongs back into your pants. It’s called the “forgotten virtue,” but actually what most often gets forgotten is that modesty in attire is only a subset, an application, of modesty as a more all-encompassing personality trait. In the latter sense, it may be in even shorter supply than in the former.
Which brings us back to Reagan, who passed away on Shabbat. In synagogues that day, the Torah portion of Beha’alotcha was being read (Numbers 8:1-12:16). It includes this famous description of Moses: “Now the man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth” (12:3).
What does it mean to be humble, or modest? The question is tricky, as becomes clear when you consider that the author of verse 12:3 is none other than Moses. Evidently, being modest doesn’t mean denying the truth about yourself. Moses was humble and he admitted this without hesitation.
Often, people who refuse to accept praise do so not out of humility but out of pride: They enjoy displaying their “humility” before others. Whether the context is clothing or general demeanor, nothing exceeds the preening of a self-consciously modest person. One way of defining authentic modesty is seeing the role God has cut out for you in the world and executing it, as Moses did, simply, without making a fuss or drawing unneeded attention to yourself.
When I was a college freshman in 1984, one of the things that drew me to Reagan was his modesty, especially in contrast to the pure arrogance of his detractors. I had gone to high school in a Republican suburb of Los Angeles and really only knew one genuine leftwinger, a sunny, wise 10th-grade history teacher named Mr. Hall. Assuming he was atypical of lefties, I liked to think of myself as one — until I got to Brown University and met them in great numbers.
The preening leftwingery I saw there — the highlight of the year was a student protest demanding “suicide pills” in case Reagan started a nuclear war — was so disgusting, it turned me into a Republican. Liberal theatrics on our campus was all about the thrill of self-righteousness, of drawing attention to yourself.
Reagan, by contrast, employed theatrics to a purpose that clearly transcended him. He saw what he needed to do and, without self-congratulation, he did it. His main goal as president was to stand up to communism and to free Eastern Europe of Soviet rule, which he accomplished. In the manner of genuinely humble people, he was not touched or moved in any way by those who attacked him. His “aloofness” was really an expression of the man’s modesty. He was not interested in flattering or in being flattered. His mission was clear to him. Even some of Reagan’s enemies perceived this. Upon reading Reagan’s private diaries, the chief counsel to the Iran-contra committee, Arthur Liman, commented: “I’m amazed at the clarity of his executive thinking, his modesty and lack of emotion. Not at all what I expected.”
In liberating the peoples of the Soviet empire, he did what, in 1984, no one could reasonably have expected, and with a humility that the Jewish liberator, Moses, would have appreciated. When he wrote his 1994 letter announcing that he had been afflicted with Alzheimer’s, he concluded modestly as ever, earnestly thanking “the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President.”
The honor was ours.
David Klinghoffer is the author of “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” (Doubleday).