Raising the Bar: Expecting Greatness From Our Political Leaders

In a comment to a previous posting, Will writes:

…what’s important here is the need to address the substance of the problems mentioned herein, and not just attack the messenger. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. All it usually does is lead to greater problems down the road.

That comment directly relates to the points raised in previous postings about a lame, stupid, and condescending ad on behalf of Senator Chafee and some ridiculous comments by Mayor Laffey.
We need to raise the bar and expect more from our political leaders. And that leads to three quotes about political greatness and statesmanship from Steven Hayward’s new book entitled Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders.
Hayward quotes James Bryce from his book entitled The American Commonwealth about why raising the bar is important:

A democracy, not less than any other form of government, needs great men to lead and inspire the people.

A 1897 quote from Winston Churchill speaks to what really matters in a leader:

In politics a man, I take it, gets on not so much by what he does, as by what he is. It is not so much a question of brains as of character and originality.

Finally, Hayward himself makes this point:

What is greatness, especially political greatness? In three thousand years we have not surpassed the understanding of Aristotle, who summed up political greatness as the ability to translate wisdom into action on behalf of the public good. To be able to do this, Aristotle argued, requires a combination of moral virtue, practical wisdom, and public-spiritedness…One must know not only what is good for oneself but also what is good for others. It is not enough merely to be wise or intelligent in the ordinary IQ-score sense; in fact, Aristotle goes to great lengths to show that practical wisdom “is at the opposite pole from intelligence.” One must have moral virtue, judgment, and public spirit in a fine balance, and these traits must be equally matched to the particular circumstances of time and place.

In the upcoming 2006 U.S. Senate race, all of us in Rhode Island should raise the bar and demand more from all candidates.
Let’s demand that they run races focused on debating policy issues and convincing us how their policy preferences benefit the public good.
And then let’s vote for the candidate who best shows signs of political greatness by the strength of their practical wisdom, character and originality.
Here are some further excerpts from Hayward’s book:

Greatness, especially political greatness, carries a whiff of political incorrectness…
In place of greatness, today we have mere celebrity, best exemplified by…People magazine…
Greatness is ultimately a question of character. Good character does not change with the times: it has eternal qualities. Aristotle connects the honor that accrues to the magnanimous person with the virtues of friendship. This suggests that it is always within our grasp to cultivate the virtue of greatness as individuals, even if circumstances – crises – do not call forth the need for political greatness on the highest level…
The tides of history and the scale of modern life have not made obsolete or incommensurate the kind of large-souled greatness we associate with Churchill or Lincoln or George Washington…yet the cases of Churchill and Reagan offer powerful refutation to the historicist premise that humans and human society are mostly corks bobbing on the waves of history…Why were Churchill and Reagan virtually alone among their contemporaries in their particular insights and resolves? The answer must be that they transcended their environments and transformed their circumstances as only great men can do, and thereby bent history to their will..
Can there be another Churchill, or another Reagan? The answer is plainly yes, though we must note that the greatness of statesmen is seldom recognized in their own time. Typically we only recognize greatness in hindsight…
Leo Strauss took the death of Churchill in 1965 as the occasion to remind his students that “we have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, of human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence. For we are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.”
Contemplating on the example of Churchill and his influence on Reagan gives us confidence that even though the mountaintops may be often shrouded in fog, we can still tell the difference between peaks and valleys.

Comparing these inspiring words about political greatness with either the stupid NRSC ad attacking Laffey or Laffey’s ridiculous comments about the pharmaceutical industry drives home the point that the bar in this U.S. Senate race is far too low.
Shall we “train ourselves and others to see things as they are…” and aspire to greatness?
If so, then we must develop zero tolerance for the mediocrity that currently pervades this Senate race.

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18 years ago

Thank you for your fine analysis. It’s nice to see another set of eyes looking at all these issues — and there certainly are plenty of them!

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