The Imperfection of Our Leaders

So, how many American citizens expect our leaders to be perfect?  There are many with palpable zeal.  A visceral desire for their chosen one to be pure and flawless in every way.  The proverbial blind eye squeezes out the few perceived flaws as unimportant to the mission.

Rule#1:  My chosen leader is perfect.

Rule#2: If imperfections are found, refer to rule#1.

Thus, any material flaws are cast aside as lies and innuendo.

The fact is they are ALL flawed.  Their humanity virtually guarantees it.  Equally obvious, some have had greater flaws then others. Crystal clear flaws like the willingness to engage in illegal conduct.  President Nixon comes to mind but there have been others.

Then there are the gray matters.  Conduct unbecoming an elected official that doesn’t quite cross the line, or, when it does cross the line, the cover up is successful.  Nothing fires-up social media and the mainstream media more.  All of this wide-open protestation of love, of hate and of angst plastered everywhere you look, its all a fairly recent phenomenon.  This is basically all since the John F. Kennedy administration. For JFK, and those earlier presidencies as well as those in positions of power almost anywhere, the press had taken the high road especially when the offense was more personal in nature, like infidelity.

Going back a hundred plus years before Nixon to the times of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Stephen Douglas, they all had their flaws or weaknesses.  Lincoln was probably the closest to freedom from major flaws.  His wit, intellect, deft political skill and grasp on the meaning of humanity crafted him into a leader any nation would rise up to exult.  Certainly among the greatest if not the greatest political leader in modern history.  Sherman, one the fiercest and most brutal warrior leaders of his time, was actually a bit of a pacifist. Yet he spent his entire career in the military.  Grant, the brilliant military architect of Civil War victory for the Unionists, should have taken the Sherman route on politics exemplified by Sherman’s famous quote “if nominated I will not run and if elected I will not serve”.  Grant’s time as president was not a happy one for him nor the nation.  Douglas chose to become a politician in the northern free state of Illinois, even though he owned a plantation with many slaves in Mississippi.   Regardless, he chose to run for the Illinois United States Senate seat against Lincoln in 1858 and won.  Well, Illinois Senators are chosen by the General Assembly and Mr. Douglas’ party won the majority in the General Assembly in 1858.  In 1860 Lincoln won the presidential election against a four-man field that included Stephen Douglas.  1n 1864 Lincoln defeated former General George B. McClellan, by a wide margin of 221-21 electoral votes.  Although there was worry at the White House that Lincoln’s actions, of continuing to fully prosecute the war and refusing to accept compromise, would lead to his defeat, he won a landslide victory.  Many historians would agree that William Tecumseh Sherman’s victory in the siege of Atlanta in the Fall of 1864 sealed successful re-election for Lincoln.     

With the possible exception of Douglas, none of these leaders seemed to have much difficulty delineating between right and wrong.  They chose a righteous path; even if some of those around them did not.  Not so different from our current lot of politicians.  During those intervening one hundred years only two presidents deserve greatness ascribed to them, FDR and Ronald Reagan.  Both war time presidents not surprisingly (FDR for our greatest war time victory in WWII and Reagan for the Cold War victory he won without a shot fired).

So, is our expectation that our leaders will strive with every cell in their being to be perfect expecting too much?  Are these expectations unrealistic for our church leaders, the school principal or the chief of police?  Sadly, we are more likely to experience painful disappointment when church, school or police officials fail our expectations then when we learn of presidential failings (or those of presidential candidates).  Are there degrees of failure or disappointment?  Is the line they must cross, to go from support to abandonment, the same for all?  By design these are all decisions we alone must make in declaring our support for specific leaders.  Our founding fathers knew quite well these decisions would be difficult and burdened with abundant complexity.  The absolute brilliance of the design is that each American citizen has the opportunity, the right, to make that choice regardless of perceived flaws.

There is of course then, “my flawed leaders is less flawed then yours”.  Or, your leader’s flaws are ghastlier and more repugnant then those you accuse my leader of possessing.  The old “throw out all the bums…except my bum”.

So, what if we suddenly became as tolerant of the failings of our leaders as we are of our brother or brother-in-law?  Or even our spouse or our children? What if we focused our entire attention to strictly policy differences?  Would that even work?  There are many who believe we should try.  The question then becomes can we collectively look beyond characteristics like religious affiliation, marital fidelity, or even ethic origin?  Others believe that society is so fragmented that this sort of altruism is virtually impossible save but by a few.  The altruistic among us represent so few in number as to be statistically meaningless. 

How sad are we?  That we first look for the worst in others.  How sad are we that our friends, family and colleagues, who, in every day circumstances lead with kindness, become ferocious beasts when anything negative is said about a politician they support.  Their ears close and their fangs lengthen hungry for blood.

Unfortunately, this disease-like state has spread to those with whom we held final hope for a bit of altruism and compromise. That four years is not too long to do nothing waiting for that next opportunity when all the political stars align once again and the need for compromise has passed.  That the political hopes and desires of half the populous can be crushed with domination.  How sad are we.

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