In our prior blogs we talked about leaders and who they were. I got a couple comments about those on the list, and those perhaps not. So perhaps a little more digging is needed to illustrate the points. For the purposes of this commentary, let’s focus on the social leaders, often political in nature. Again, let’s do this based on quick perceptions, as opposed to deeper digging, because perception shapes our reality. I was asked about George Washington. In many respects Washington was our first “leader” in the Presidency, but his actions there were mostly non-descript. He is mostly remembered as a good wartime general. Even then, there was really nothing to indicate he was or would be a great leader in government except that everyone respected him because of his accomplishments. Keep in mind leaders are measured by their followers, so given the amount of respect for his accomplishment she commanded, Washington had many followers. But perhaps his greatest demonstration of leadership was his refusal to become our king. He noted that he had led an effort to avoid a monarchy and thought it disrespectful to those that had fallen to recreate one. He led the revolution for change, but a permanent change. He was supportive of the crazy radical liberal thinkers who actually had the audacity to think that a democracy by the people could really work. We have no appreciation of just how crazy this idea was in 1776 because we have lived it as the norm for over 200 years. But in 1776, it was anything but the norm, and the leadership in creating that democracy should rightfully be laced on James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, all of whom played major parts in developing the Federalist papers, Constitution and Declaration of Independence. All had a vision of what the US could be and were able to bring others along to implement it. Each was perhaps more of a leader as President than Washington.
But our first great leader was Lincoln, who was not always that popular as President. Again there was nothing particularly distinguishing about Lincoln that would lead one to think he would be a great leader, but the struggles Lincoln had faced throughout his life had prepared him for the darkest hours of the young USA. He inherited a situation where half the country had an economy based on slave labor, did not recognize slaves as people but as property, were determined to maintain their way of life and were willing to risk armed conflict to preserve it regardless of the impact on the young union. Prior presidents and Congresses had refused to alter the status quo to keep the peace, which really festered the issue for many years and hardened positions further. When the CSA attacked Fort Sumter and Lincoln acted. Lincoln set a course to protect the union at all costs. He refused to recognize the CSA as a legitimate nation (which would later make their re-entry to the union easier), instituted marshal law by executive declaration and set about to rework (change) the federal bureaucracy to support the wartime effort. He recognized that money would be an issue, so he set a competitor, Salmon P. Chase, to create the central banking system, a major change in how a government did business. Marshal law restricted activity that might be detrimental to the union, a radical departure from the past. He bided his time before the change to emancipate former slaves by executive proclamation, and allowing them to fight as full members of the army. He updated the military, and despite setbacks with generals, kept changing them until they provided the results he wanted. He pursued new developments in weaponry, yet made sure he engaged the servicemen with frequent visits to the battlefield and hospitals. He created a vision, and became the living personification of it. The citizens of the north bought into his vision and mission and sacrificed significantly. In the end he preserved the union, and offered the rebels readmission with relatively limited penalty. He was unfortunately assassinated prior to seeing his full vision. The ugliness of civil rights that lasted another 100 years likely would not have made Lincoln happy.
Our next leader also inherited a difficult situation – FDR. The nation was at the depths of the Great Depression caused by banking speculation in real estate, economic collapse in Europe and other factors, creating rampant unemployment, and devolved financial system. A few starts and stops aside, FDR convinced Congress to borrow and spend money for construction WPA projects that updated or initiated water, sewer, parks, storm water and roadway projects that updated much of the south and rural areas. He created regulations for banking and securities, including separated banking and investment monies that protected us (until many were repealed in 2000), insured personal banking accounts through the creation of FDIC, created oversight agencies like the SEC, and initiated social security in response to the banking crisis that left many older Americans in poverty, which was the start of the societal social net. In the second half of his terms, he led a frightened nation to victory in WWII, setting up the greatest economic boom on US history. He also died before his vision was fully realized, but his successor, led us through to plan to avoid the errors in dealing with the defeated after WWI, developing the Marshal Plan to rebuild the defeated German and Japanese economies and creating a better model for international communication (United Nations). Both built on changes from past thinking about how to deal with the issues.
The next social leader was never elected: Martin Luther King led us to the completion of Lincoln’s dream to integrate all Americans into one nation. He gained champions in Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who pushed forward civil rights legislation along with major changes in policy in the form of Medicare and Medicaid. Even Johnson acknowledged that signing the Civil Rights legislation would create a backlash among certain Americans who would abandon his party. But he made the hard choice to change.
Arguments could be made for Teddy Roosevelt, who led us to setting aside parks, and Woodrow Wilson in WWI. It is not a coincidence that President Obama was pursued “Change” as a mantra, although he has yet to be able to institute consensus for a lot of change. For most of the rest of our political leaders, what leadership did they display? Harding? Buchanon? Grant? Andrew Johnson? Taft? Hoover? Tyler? So many others. Leadership is indeed difficult to come by, but leadership is defined by dealing with an opportunity, and the leaders are agents of change to resolve that issue, not the status quo. Too many of our political leaders have desperately attempted to maintain the status quo. As I have mentioned in classes I have taught to elected officials – no one remembers, and no one builds statues to the guy who refused to raise taxes. We remember and build statues to those who implement change, not those that maintain the status quo. And while all changes may not be positive, trying to return to the 1890s, is not leadership.