Monday, February 22, 2021

Leadership Then and Now

Ages ago, when I was growing up, February 22 was (as it should still be today) a holiday, George Washington's Birthday, which was widely observed with the ritual eating of cherry pie. That peculiar custom, of course, invoked the legend of young George Washington (1732-1799, President 1789-1797) admitting to having chopped down a cherry tree, because he could not tell a lie. As with all such myths, the point was not historical but moral. The point was not what might or might not have happened to some 18th-century Virginia cherry tree but the honesty and exemplary moral probity of the "Father of our Country."

Both as a soldier and as a statesman, George Washington was obviously a man of enormous talent and corresponding ambition. A man of his time. however, he was constrained by 18th-century norms to camouflage his ambition. Sadly we no longer inhabit such a society, and instead we reward and honor narcissism and self-promotion in our prominent persons, including our political leaders. Likewise, Washington as Commander-in-Chief and later as President embodied a kind of quasi-kingly restraint in his personal and official behavior - a style that has long-since given way in American political culture to a Caesarist populism, with correspondingly predictable consequences, most dramatically evident in the Trump personality cult that has so completely corrupted American political culture.

In this context, the founding myth of Washington's honesty provides an important contrast with the popular (and "populist") Trump cult's ubiquitous falsehoods, its both big and small lies. As Machiavelli wrote in an earlier era of moral and cultural breakdown, "one who deceives will always find those who will allow themselves to be deceived" (The Prince, 18).

Meanwhile, the U.S. pandemic death toll has now reached 500,000, more than in any other country. We have experienced nothing like this in at least a century. More Americans have died from this pandemic than were killed in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam combined! Admittedly, while there are aspects of this tragedy that were always beyond human prediction or control, can anyone doubt that a culture of leadership which valued honesty, humility, and Washington's quasi-kingly personal restraint would have handled this calamity better, beginning with the virus' first appearance a year ago? The same applies to more immediate, seemingly short-term crises like the failure of governance in Republican-run southern states that has so recently totally disrupted life this winter. Imagine if, instead of irrelevant fantasies (for example, about blaming renewable energy), the real energy failures and the real governing culprits in Texas had been called to account!

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