Dec. 19, 2011
FRC staff, visitors, and friends on the Web had an extraordinary opportunity this week to hear a lecture by Leticia Velasquez. Mrs. Velasquez is the mother of a Down Syndrome child. She spoke movingly of her experiences and how she viewed this child as a special blessing from God. Nurses told her eight years ago, "we regret to inform you that..." It started off that coldly, that clinically. "Mongolita," her husband told her, using the Spanish word for Mongoloid. But Leticia is a feisty New Yorker. She answered back: "This beloved child will never shoot up her school or do drugs." And she's right about that.
Sitting in the audience, I remembered my first encounter with this subject. I was a graduate student reading the biography of Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle had then only recently retired as President of the Fifth Republic of France.
A military hero during World War I, de Gaulle at 6'5" towered over most of his countrymen, both figuratively and literally. In the interwar years, Col. de Gaulle taught at Saint-Cyr, the French military academy, and was an outspoken advocate for tank warfare. His theories were considered too radical, and he was shunted aside. Only in 1940, did de Gaulle see his ideas put to devastating use--by the Nazis panzers as they plowed through the Ardennes forest. While the divided French Cabinet argued about whether to surrender or keep fighting, the newly promoted Gen. de Gaulle escorted a British friend to the airport outside threatened Paris. Then, without so much as a toothbrush, he closed the door to the aircraft and flew to England. He watched from the air as the battered French towns below burst into flames. His own wife and daughter Anne were down there.
He rallied the French people with a speech delivered over the BBC. And he led the Free French throughout the war. Afterward, he briefly led the government before going into retirement. But in 1958, France was wracked with internal divisions over Algeria, communism, and much else. Called out of retirement, Charles de Gaulle became President of France. He re-wrote the constitution, creating the Fifth Republic that governs France to this day. In World War II, he restored French honor after the debacle of Hitler's invasion and occupation. As President, he sought to make France respected again throughout the world.
Retiring for a second time in 1969, de Gaulle was asked by an interviewer what gave him the courage, the stamina, and the vision to fight so hard for his country. Unhesitatingly, he answered: "The love of Anne de Gaulle."
As a student, I was puzzled. But I soon found out what he meant. Anne was born with Downs Syndrome. Charles and his wife Yvonne raised Anne at home. What's so unusual about that? At that time, most of France's upper classes, and certainly most ambitious military figures, would quietly place such a daughter in a convent school, where loving and devoted nuns would care for her. There would be visits several times a year, of course, but the child would effectively be banished from the family.
Not the de Gaulles. They rearranged their entire domestic life around the need to love and care for Anne. And Anne returned that love in abundance. One of the most moving scenes I ever read showed Charles and Yvonne standing at the gravesite in a small country churchyard in Colombey Les Deux Eglises. Embracing his grieving wife, the world leader said: "Now she is like all the others."
As an historian, I'm often asked why it is we don't seem to have leaders on the world stage who are like the giant figures of World War II. In France today, 96% of unborn children diagnosed with Down Syndrome are killed. In the U.S., it is 92%. These lethal rates are even higher among the elites from whose ranks we draw our leaders. Might it be that we no longer produce leaders who can love as unconditionally as the de Gaulles? Anne's love inspired and motivated one of the greatest leaders of the Twentieth Century. Perhaps we need more such lovers. And more capacity to love.