Once upon a time, America valued and produced great leaders. Men who inspired, who rose above the common, who placed country above self, and who understood the importance of honesty as a vivid and very real motivator of personal behavior and public policy.
It was from this milieu that Daniel Webster reportedly answered the question posed him by a mid-nineteenth Century European journalist — “what is America’s greatest gift to the world?” – with five simple words that profoundly encapsulated what had brought a fledgling nation barely able to secure its limited borders, to a nation just 50 years later knocking on the doors of the world’s then-great powers. Webster’s answer to this question to describe why world powers already were looking to America as something truly special and good was simply, “The integrity of George Washington.”
Today, some century-and-three-quarters after Webster shared the secret of America’s growing leadership in the world, our nation is locked in another presidential contest pitting many men and women against each other; all vying to “lead” the United States of America for at least four years through the second decade of the 21st Century. And what do we have in this contest’s crop of front-runners? Certainly no George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or Abe Lincoln.
We have a loud-mouthed bully who delights in insulting his own teammates and anyone else within range of his piercing vision. We have the scion of a recent political dynasty, who is clothed in skin so thin the slightest barb elicits expressions of pain and cries of “foul.” We next have a physician with not the slightest experience in the public policy arenas in which a president necessarily must know to act, and whose presence is so soft one has to strain to hear his words. And finally in the pack at the front of the pack, we have a woman so steeped in scandal and fibs that the modern lie detector would be unable to detect that she even subconsciously perceives the difference between a lie and the truth.
Is this really what American Leadership has become? Has the presidency become nothing more than a scramble not just for the comfort that comes from mediocrity, but one that revels in the basest of human nature? Has it become thus rather than a contest that strives to set a tone and an example born of understanding, respect, strength and vision? Where once our national leaders asked of themselves and their fellow Americans, “what can you do for your country,” leaders in Washington now fight to rise to the top of the heap that is the House of Representatives by asking – nay, demanding – “what can this exalted position do for my career.”
In a prescient essay on “Statesmanship” written shortly before the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, Mark Helprin eloquently explained that in generations past, men rose as leaders in America – whether in business, the military, or most importantly, in the political arena — by placing their own careers, their own lives, subservient to a higher good. Such people possessed what Helprin identified as the sine qua non of a true statesman – the soul of a Medal of Honor winner; a soul unafraid to die. Sadly now, as Helprin wrote back in those dark days at the turn of this most recent Century, “we have only what we have” — a “political class [that is] in the main, . . . in it for themselves.”
The dangers to rise from this schoolyard mess – though one with serious, even dire consequences for the country depending on who finally emerges – are, or should be clear. Our next president must be a man or woman who truly understands public policy and how to maneuver the levers of power in a complex and uncompromising world arena, but without loosening the bonds of America’s history and values that should bind their soul to the unshakable principle of integrity.
Neither the mega-rich bully Trump, nor the quiet but inexperienced surgeon Carson fit this mold. Certainly, the Democratic front-runner — the scandal-born-and-raised wife of America’s most narcissistic President — would never be able to operate in that arena; at least not in a way that would benefit our country. And the thin-skinned son of a former President and brother of another, seeking desperately to prove he is the equal of his father and his brother, already has shown himself unworthy of such a mantel.
Yet there are, on the Republican side, candidates possessed of the understanding, vision and integrity that so often in the past, but so infrequently in the present, have been characteristics possessed by true American statesmen. Whether they will be able to break the media-constructed fence that has been erected around the other front-runners, in time to present voters with a picture of true leadership, is the question not only for this 2016 election cycle, but for many more to follow.