This week has been one of our nation’s grimmest reminders that words matter. After years of the president stoking hatred with rhetoric about immigrants being “thugs” and “animals” that “infest” our country and represent an “invasion,” 22 people were gunned down in El Paso by a shooter whose manifesto read, “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” And the next day, nine more people were shot in yet another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio.
We’re living with the consequences of what the worst leaders can do — bring out our most base instincts and reduce us to the most hateful versions of ourselves. The best presidents, on the other hand, summon what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
This week was also a reminder of what a huge opportunity presidential elections are not just to pick the best health care plan or the most comprehensive immigration reform as vital as those are — but to pick a president who can tap into what’s best in us, inspire us and call on us to go beyond what we think we’re capable of.
Every presidential election is an opportunity for renewal. History teaches us about these electoral pendulum swings. After the dark duplicity of Richard Nixon, we chose the grinning honesty of Jimmy Carter. After the frugal malaise of Carter, we opted for the robust charisma of Ronald Reagan. And after the triumphant milestone of electing the first black president, we got the malignant racism of Donald Trump. And now, nauseated and exhausted from the hate-filled Trump years, after all the cynicism and division, there is a real chance to tap into the latent reserves of idealism and longing for unity of the American people.
And it’s a longing that transcends left and right and the tribal clash that politics has become. John McCain identified “the ability to inspire Americans” as the quality most needed in a president. And even the patron saint of conservatism, William F. Buckley, talked about presidents like F.D.R., Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who “transcend marketplace collisions and get the country excited about a political purpose.” Policies didn’t get Trump elected and policies aren’t going to get Trump defeated. Presidential elections aren’t about hiring a CEO — what we need is a vision that challenges our imagination.
A presidential election, historian David McCullough once told me, “like spring, brings up all the juices. The people are so tired of contrivance and fabrication and hokum. They really want to be stirred in their spirit. That’s when we are at our best. The great presidents are people who caused those who follow them to do more than they thought they were capable of.”
Yes, the polls show people are concerned — rightly — about health care. And immigration, and climate change, and gun control. But to excite our imagination and to take on those challenges requires leaders who dare to liberate themselves from the tyranny of polls.
Years ago, before the first election of the new century, I interviewed Doris Kearns Goodwin. “We need to get away from a political system that is so filled with minute public opinion polls and focus groups and the ability to know what the electorate is thinking at every moment that the leader loses his instincts for boldness,” she told me. “The job is not simply to reflect current opinion but to challenge it, move it forward and shape it. The ability to just take a stand and know that you can move the country to that stand is a lost art we need to recapture.” That was in 1999, but it’s even more true today.
One of the most celebrated and singular examples of the power of vision and passion in dark times is Winston Churchill. In the spring of 1940, Britain had just been pushed out of Norway by Germany, and France would soon fall. On May 13th, just three days after he became Prime Minister, Churchill addressed the Commons, asking for a vote of full confidence in his coalition government. He didn’t promise the road would be easy — far from it. But what he did show the nation was his vision for victory — staking a claim in the future and filling in the way to get there not with troop movements and logistics, but with spirit and determination.
I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.
You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs — victory in spite of all terror — victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.
The speech would later be named by TIME as one of the “80 days that changed the world.”
A month later, on June 18th, he delivered his most famous speech to the country. The war going even worse, with France now defeated and the Battle of Britain looming. But to Churchill, the dark days ahead were only an opportunity for Britain to show its greatness. “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties,” he concluded, “and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
We saw that same power of vision and inspiration when, seven years before the moon landing, of which we’ve just celebrated the 50th anniversary, John F. Kennedy issued his own challenge, which was explicitly about more than just going to the moon. We do these things, he said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” McCullough remembers it well. “He wasn’t pandering to the less noble side of human nature,” he told me. “He was calling on us to give our best. I was one of those people — and there were thousands of us who threw aside our jobs, whatever we were doing, to answer the call.” That call was to join the Peace Corps.
The longing to turn dark times into “our finest hour” is deep. The man or woman who issues another call to go beyond our own interests will be the one who realizes that our search for the next president is also a search for our better selves.
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