By Denise Dunbar (Courtesy photo)
Our unruly world became a bit less civil last week with the passing of long-time Alexandria resident David M. Abshire. An advisor to presidents, former ambassador to NATO and co-founder of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Abshire’s greatest contribution was his unceasing devotion to decency and unity.
Alexandria is home to scores of accomplished, amazing people, but few cut a swath as wide or as deep as Abshire. In the political realm, Abshire held important posts in the Nixon and Reagan administrations. After serving as President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to NATO from 1983 to 1987, Abshire was tapped to coordinate the White House’s response to the Iran-Contra scandal. He insisted on an open, transparent response to the inquiry — even if it came at political cost.
This seems a stunning concept in today’s polarized political world, but Abshire was able to serve in government without being particularly partisan. Though he served and advised mainly Republicans, in a talk at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in 2008 he expressed admiration for the words and potential of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.
In fact, he said with a chuckle, he had recently been hearing unexpected noises coming from upstairs in his beautiful Old Town home. It turned out his wife, Carolyn, unknown to him, had allowed a young volunteer from Obama’s campaign to move into their attic until the election. Rather than being upset, he was amused.
The Episcopal Church was another of Abshire’s loves, and the controversy in the church that resulted from the ordination of openly gay bishop Eugene Robinson in 2003 upset him. In typical fashion, rather than trying to force either side in the dispute to accept the others’ views, Abshire worked for unity in the greater church.
He saw the contentiousness as an opportunity to look beyond that one issue to a renewal of the Episcopal Church as a whole. In fact, he coordinated efforts to produce a document on unity that called on Washington’s National Cathedral and Trinity Church on Wall Street to lead a church revival.
For a variety of reasons his initiative did not succeed, but the effort, and thought process that produced it, were quintessentially Abshire.
He shared many qualities with Reagan, the president with whom he is most closely associated. Though current Republicans of all viewpoints claim Reagan as their own, the more strident partisans do so with particular fervor. And yet, as historian and Reagan scholar Craig Shirley said recently, Reagan was not one of them. The genius of Reagan was that he was a recruiter, who constantly reached out to everyone — not just people in his own party — to try and share his vision for a better and more prosperous America.
Like Reagan, Abshire dealt in ideas and individuals, not in parties and political maneuvering. They both put doing the right thing above doing what was expedient.
He was a Tennessean by birth, and he never lost that Southern courtliness, but was also an Alexandrian, an Episcopalian and a national figure who acted on the world stage. Above all, he was a decent man who treated others with respect. He seemed pained and perplexed when others didn’t do the same.
Abshire’s approach to life was one that should cause all of us to pause and reflect. When our time on earth is up, do we want to be remembered as someone whose actions divided people or as one who brought people together?
Rest in peace.
The writer is the publisher of the Alexandria Times.