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James F. Burns: Americans need a return to virtue, character

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Teddy Roosevelt gained fame as "the trust-buster" by using government to break up monopolies in the early 1900s. Sad to say, a century later the "trust busting" going on is in government in Washington, D.C.

Teddy's strength was reflected by his motto, "Walk softly but carry a big stick." Today's mantra is more along the lines of "Talk big but carry a stick of butter."

While trust in government may be eroding at a record clip, respect for entertainment icons and sports heroes may be fading even faster. Miley Cyrus, Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez -- shame on all of you. Where does it all end? Better yet, where do better standards begin?

Allow me to reach into my ancestral mailbag and quote letters several centuries old that capture qualities worth emulating. David Acheson wrote to his parents in Ireland in 1800:

"When I reflect on the care and attention you bestowed upon me, the pains you took to instruct my youth in every good and virtuous thing, I wonder how it is possible that children should ever be ungrateful to their parents. I can never repay what you have done for me."

Admittedly, sexting, texting, twerking and Twittering were unknown -- and three of the four impossible in David Acheson's era. Starting from scratch as an immigrant, Acheson managed to get himself elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly, become a bank director and be invited to dine with George Washington. So all the values and virtues -- such as industriousness, delayed gratification, and obeying moral laws -- taught by his parents paid off. Acheson's efforts in America benefited his family, community and his new nation.

The same small church in the north of Ireland where Acheson learned many of his moral precepts was also attended by Alexander Burns, whose brother soon followed Acheson to Washington, Pa. Alexander wrote his brother:

"May God give us an understanding heart to know his mind and will and also give us grace to make our lives and conversation agreeable to it. Guard against the degeneracy of the times, both in principle and practice."

I don't want to get all preachy about where we are today, but even our scientists seem to be lost. My trustworthy newspaper informs me that scientists are searching for dark matter a mile underground in South Dakota. I would suggest they instead look at ground level in Washington, D.C., or simply turn on a TV or smartphone or iPad -- all rich sources of very dark matter.

Our coinage says "In God we trust." It wisely doesn't say to trust in the IRS, NSA, presidential promises, Tour de France winners, steroid-free homerun hitters, or seeing wholesome entertainment at awards ceremonies. My hometown Cincinnati Reds won the 1919 World Series, stained by Shoeless Joe Jackson and others throwing games for the Chicago White Sox -- dubbed the Black Sox. The incident was morally framed by the little boy who looked up at his hero and said, "Say it ain't so, Joe." Joe couldn't.

In so many words, we're asking our government, our entertainers, our sports heroes and maybe even ourselves, when we look in the mirror, to "Say it ain't so." Alexander Burns also advised his brother in America to seek guidance from the good book. One piece of biblical wisdom is "to think on things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report." Maybe our nation needs a double dose of such virtues -- and new heroes.

Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.


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