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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Portraits in grace: A pilot, a judge and a first lady

With much justification, Americans bemoan the state of our political discourse and the poor character of many our politicians. With the election of President Donald Trump came the depressing realization that decency, kindness and humility weren’t needed to reach the highest political office; these qualities might even be a hindrance. But we should not leap to the conclusion that we lack virtuous role models in public life; we’re just not looking in the right places. This week we learned about a trio of them, all women.

First, the pilot. The Post reports:

“The pilot’s voice was calm yet focused as her plane descended, telling air traffic control she had ‘149 souls’ on board and was carrying 21,000 pounds – or about five hours’ worth – of fuel.

“ ‘Southwest 1380, we’re single engine,’ said Capt. Tammie Jo Shults, a former fighter pilot with the U.S. Navy. ‘We have part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit.’ She asked for medical personnel to meet her aircraft on the runway. ‘We’ve got injured passengers.’

“ ‘Injured passengers, OK, and is your airplane physically on fire?’ asked the air traffic controller, according to audio of the interaction.”

“ ‘No, it’s not on fire, but part of it’s missing,’ Shults said, pausing for a moment. ‘They said there’s a hole, and, uh, someone went out.’ ”

In guiding her plane to a smooth landing in Philadelphia that likely averted a large-scale tragedy, Shults, we know from the flight recording, was stunningly calm and polite. She showed more grace talking to the air-traffic control tower from the cockpit of the plane than most people do waiting on a customer service line. She did her job expertly (her training as one of the first female Navy pilots was put to good use) but without fanfare. Real heroes don’t need to tell you they are heroes.

Then there is U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood. She presided over the court hearing in the Southern District of New York where lawyers representing Trump and Trump’s own lawyer Michael Cohen threw up one half-baked legal argument after another trying to keep the proceeds of a lawfully executed search warrant out of the hands of prosecutors. No matter how devoid of merit the lawyers’ arguments, Wood was polite, brisk and efficient. the New York Times reported:

“Over the years, she has handled several prominent cases, earning a reputation for being sensitive, demanding and – as could be relevant in Mr. Cohen’s matter – unequivocal in her expectations of public officials.

“ ‘She’s sort of the judicial equivalent of Teddy Roosevelt – she speaks softly but carries a big stick,’ said Judd Burstein, a lawyer who has known Judge Wood for more than 30 years. ‘She has a wonderful judicial temperament. She’s very soft-spoken, very courteous to people, but completely no-nonsense.’ ”

Again, a no-nonsense professional, cool under pressure, did her job without regard to the hubbub around her.

And we also collectively celebrated the life of former first lady Barbara Bush. She, too, did her job with dignity, graciousness and calm. It didn’t matter whether she was greeting a neighbor in Houston while walking her dog, greeting a Secret Service agent or interacting with a world leader; they all got the same blunt, no-nonsense woman who spent her life in service to others (her family and her country).

The president and a good deal of Congress may disappoint, if not embarrass, many Americans, but we have no shortage of admirable Americans in public life who know it’s not all about them. They are decent, dignified and superbly gifted at their jobs, and they let their performances speak for themselves. Look in courtrooms, embassies, government offices, firehouses, police stations and, of course, in military installations around the globe. There you’ll find oodles of role models for your children and plenty of inspiring figures for yourself among the men and women who have spent decades striving to do their jobs well and do their institutions, families and country proud.

Public heroes are not scarce. We just need to stop looking for them in the Capitol and White House – or better yet, start populating those places with people as honorable and skilled as Capt. Tammie Jo Shults, Judge Kimba Wood and former first lady Barbara Bush.

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