Sobran Column -- Hillsdale: The Moral
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Hillsdale: The Moral

November 16, 1999

When intellectuals charged that the Church had been discredited by World War I, G.K. Chesterton replied that you might as well charge that Noah’s ark had been discredited by the Great Flood. If Europe’s rulers had lived by Christian principles, the war would never have happened.

We’re hearing similar charges about Hillsdale College in Michigan, whose president, George Roche III, has been forced to resign. It came to light that he had had a long, adulterous affair with his son’s wife, Lissa Roche, who shot herself when he shunned her after marrying another woman. (He had recently dumped his wife of 44 years.)

Since Hillsdale is a conservative mecca, espousing Christian virtues, this ugly story is being welcomed by liberals, who see the scandal as discrediting not only Roche but Hillsdale itself. The illogic of this is exemplified by Laura Berman of the Detroit News, who sneers that in his 28 years as president, Roche turned Hillsdale into “a living museum of American values, circa 1955, where almost everyone is white and Christian.”

Mrs. Berman goes on to recall Lissa Roche’s writings, which she sums up thus: that “the world was a simple place one might navigate successfully using basic rules and careful associations with nice people. It is an approach so simplistic it can seem simple-minded.... You can hear the lack of conviction in Lissa Roche’s written words. In her death, though, she speaks, tragically, with an authentic and eloquent voice.”

The obvious reply is that if Lissa Roche had lived by the “simplistic” virtues she espoused, her life might have been happier. She was trapped by her own sin, delusion, and hypocrisy. Has Mrs. Berman ever read Anna Karenina, the great novel of a woman whose adultery eventually leads to her suicide? Would she call Tolstoy “simplistic”?

In fact, Lissa Roche’s death confirms, with awful irony, the validity of the virtues she and her father-in-law publicly espoused. The same is true of George Roche III, who is now ruined and disgraced at the little school he did so much to build.

What is Mrs. Berman’s point? That the story might have ended happily if only Hillsdale had adopted the more up-to-date code of the “new morality”? Talk about “simplistic”! Nothing could be shallower than the view that unlimited sexual indulgence is essentially harmless to body and soul.

Not only the Bible but even secular Western literature has always recognized the explosive, sometimes demonic power of lust. Or were Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy (their works, after all, are taught at Hillsdale) exponents of “American values, circa 1955”?

Liberals who held that Bill Clinton’s adultery was unrelated to his job performance — it was his “private life,” remember? — take glee in the scandal of George Roche’s adultery. But Hillsdale quickly took the difficult step of removing its peccant president for his disgraceful conduct. The process took less than three weeks. Nobody made excuses for him.

Hillsdale can be criticized for its futile attempt to mute the scandal. It hasn’t officially acknowledged any connection between Lissa Roche’s suicide and George Roche’s departure, which it blandly ascribes to “the combined pressures of his personal health and private family life.”

But the college can’t be accused of being false to its moral principles. It applied them in the toughest imaginable case: against its own president, who had built it into a nationally famed conservative institution, all the while making himself a symbol of heroic resistance to federal power.

Roche was even more treacherous than Clinton, since his sin smacked of incest; he defiled the family of his own son. He still insists and swears he is innocent, though nobody believes him.

His farewell letter admits nothing and reeks with nauseating hypocrisy: “Together we have built a beautiful dream. We have proved that integrity, values, and courage can still triumph in a corrupt world.” Even an innocent man might have reflected on how that would sound, but a sense of irony has never been George Roche’s long suit.

But, like Clinton, Roche evidently still thinks he can finally get away with what he did. Well, he can’t; he didn’t. Hillsdale saved its honor from its own president. And that’s the real moral of the story.

Joseph Sobran

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