The degree of anxiety over today’s Presidential election—perhaps more accurate than anxiety is hysteria—is palpable. It is also unnecessary and foolish. I have read the fevered rantings of Andrew Sullivan, who fears Mitt Romney like the Germans feared the invading Russian army at the end of World War II, and the apocalyptic monologues of conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin, who is prone to statements like, “It’s over, that’s all! Do you understand? If Obama wins, this country is never coming back!” I have watched both parties exploit and encourage this kind of irrational fear, and its by-products, predictably, are hate, division and anger. There was a time in America when political adversaries referred to each other as “my honorable opponent.” The candidates were not more honorable then. We were more sensible.
The history of the United States has shown that very few truly bad men have the opportunity to run for President. It makes sense, if you give it a modicum of thought. A Presidential contender must negotiate the perils of life for at least four decades without accumulating damning evidence of disqualifying character traits and malign intent. The candidate must have shown sufficient ability and character to impress those he worked with and owed duties to. Most of all, a potential President must have been able to engender a sufficient amount of trust over more than half of his natural life.
We should not judge political leaders by the same standards as other professionals, because the nature of politics, by definition, is ethically ambiguous. Politics knows only one ethical system: utilitarianism. The practice of governing and making human progress advance in the civic arena rules out absolute principles, and requires delicate calculations of ends and means. This often appears, to non-practitioners, as corruption, and it certainly can become that. Effective, trustworthy leaders are able to avoid the occupational hazard of believing that the ends necessarily justify the means. If they cannot, they will not have the opportunity to be President.
No doubt, Presidents, like all leaders, are different from the rest of us in significant ways. This makes them difficult to understand and to identify with—a problem, since this democracy has always imagined that the President should understand the common man, or better yet, be one. Leaders aren’t common; that’s why they are leaders. Psychologically, they usually see themselves as unique, and most of them have good reasons to think that. If they were not physical standouts (Washington, Lincoln, Taft), they were intellectually superior (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Garfield, Teddy, Wilson, Kennedy). Many had harrowing survival experiences that left them convinced that they were genuine men of destiny (Washington, the Roosevelts, Jackson, Polk, Eisenhower). Many more had parents who pushed and exhorted them to seek high achievement. Is this a psychologically healthy group? Clearly not. We have had sociopaths, depressives, neurotics and narcissists among our leaders, and keeping those pathologies from turning these men to dark paths has required them to build character, self-knowledge and self-discipline. To a remarkable degree and with some notable failures, they have been able to do so,
Perhaps most of all, taking on the mantle of Washington and Lincoln makes imperfect men better. No one wants to accept the burden of their nation’s hopes and aspirations and betray them, or disgrace the symbolic center of the government. Chester Arthur and Harry Truman were small-time machine politicians who never could have won the job on their own merits. When they became President unexpectedly, elevated by death, both rose to embrace the standard. Being President, in short, makes flawed men good, and can make good men great.
Nothing in the life stories or exploits of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama justify fearing them, or impugning their motives. Like all authentic public servants, they are motivated by a calling, to serve the nation, its ideals, and the American public, and to apply their talents, determination, courage and skill to making the United States strong, prosperous and good. These are the leaders our culture creates and nurtures.
And we owe them our respect and gratitude for their sacrifices, as well as the trust that they will do what they think is right. There is no better day to recall President Theodore Roosevelt’s most famous speech, important because it conveys the essence of Teddy (my favorite President), but more so because it captures what is special and admirable about those who achieve the highest office in the land, and the most challenging job on earth:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
——Theodore Roosevelt, in his speech “Citizenship In A Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, on April 23, 1910.