Many of you know that his Highness Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, died a couple weeks ago. And you may also have seen footage of Thai people distraught with grief, weeping and wailing as they held pictures of their king, and wondered, “Is this real? Is a whole nation really that stricken with grief, or are they just doing what you are supposed to do when royalty dies? They’ll get over it in a few days.”
I’ve been to Thailand 11 times and I’ve been intimately associated with the Thai church in town since 1992, and I can confidently say that they are not faking it. Thais all over the world are heartsick. The New York Times said King Bhumibol, who was on the throne for 70 years, was “a revered personification of Thai nationhood” and “a unifying figure in a deeply polarized country.” Thai people saw him as “a father figure wholly dedicated to their welfare, and as the embodiment of stability in a country where political leadership rose and fell through decades of military coups.”
The Sunday after the king died, the Thai church here in Forest Park had a 5-foot-by-4-foot picture of His Majesty set up in the front of the church, and at the end of the service there was a special time to give thanks for his life and pray for the country of Thailand.
Many of the members talked about him as a father figure for the whole nation. What won their hearts was that he did not live a life of luxury, secluded in his palace. Just the opposite. He made a point of traveling all over Thailand and being with the people. He promoted projects like improving agricultural techniques in the poorest part of the country. One popular picture shows him in casual clothes out in a rice field with a farmer discussing a variety of rice. Something like what we’ve seen in Pope Francis, he had a heart for all people and they responded in kind.
If it’s hard for you to believe that the death of any human being could elicit that much emotion, perhaps it’s because you are an American, and we just don’t have anyone in this country who is deeply loved by almost everyone, who is trusted and respected and loved as a person who embodies who we are as a nation. But that’s something I’ve experienced many times as a guest in their culture. The Thais have some things we don’t have and wish we did.
Can you name a person all Americans look to as the personification of our nation? What about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? Who is the face and voice of Illinois? Mike Madigan, Bruce Rauner? How about Forest Park? Can you think of anyone who comes even close to being Mr. or Ms. Forest Park?
If Queen Elizabeth died, I think the whole United Kingdom, including the Scots, would feel like they had lost a mother. And if Pope Francis were assassinated, Roman Catholics of all stripes would mourn his passing as if he were one of their own family.
Did you notice that none of the three people I mentioned were elected by their constituents? And, of course, we the people have chosen through popular primary elections two candidates whose unfavorable ratings are, according to an ABC News/Washington Post survey, 56% (Clinton) and 60% (Trump).
The problem for elected officials — our own five commissioners, for example — is that if they say something that offends large groups in town, even if it’s true, or if they do something unpopular, even if in the long run it’s good for the town, they run the risk of not being elected next time around. No wonder Hillary wanted use her private email. Can you imagine how many parents would “remain in office” if every four years their children voted on whether they would continue to be in authority?
Partly because he never had to go through an election to retain his kingship, Bhumibol Adulyadej could be a father figure who would at times scold the Thai people without worrying about what the next opinion poll would say. He was loved and respected, partly because he had earned it — by rolling up his sleeves and working right with his people, but also because he didn’t have to pander to one “base” or another to win an election. His vision was almost always focused on the good of the whole.
I don’t think it’s fair to ask Tony or Joe or Tom or Rachell or Dan to be Mr. or Ms. Forest Park, but we do need people who stand above partisan power struggles and are looked to by most folks in town to help us focus on the unum in the midst of the pluribus.
I don’t have anyone in mind to nominate for that role, but what King Bhumibol has taught me is that it must be someone who has nothing to lose — like an election, for example. He or she must have integrity, of course, and roots in the community and thereby know it well. And he or she must have that hard to define thing that the “I heart FP” signs are trying to promote: heartfelt, genuine love for this village.