Americans will cast their votes in 2012 for the leadership of our nation and for the future of American leadership in the world. It is not just the presidency that is at stake. Republicans control the House of Representatives after a landslide win in the 2010 midterm congressional elections. If Democrats lose four 2012 races, they will lose control of the Senate in the 113th Congress.
Today our nation is facing great challenges. We are engaged in an asymmetrical contest against terrorism, a non-state enemy that is difficult to confront and defeat. Whether we will have a century of peace or a century of conflict will also depend on how ascendant nations like Brazil, Russia, India and China choose to define their greatness.
On the competitiveness front, we will need to foment innovation and education in order to extend our economic advances. And we must confront all of these challenges at a time when our fiscal conditions are constrained.
In an address to Congress in 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair made the following observation:
“[I]n some small corner of this vast country… there’s a [person] getting on with his life…saying to you, the political leaders of this country, ‘Why me, and why us, and why America?’ And the only answer is because destiny put you in this place in history in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do.”
Whatever party emerges victorious in the upcoming contests, our President, our Senators and our Representatives will be called upon to provide America and the world with the kind of leadership that we saw from our founding fathers, from Abraham Lincoln and from our World War II generation.
When I think of leadership worthy of the challenges of our times, my thoughts turn to our first President, George Washington. He was not as highly educated as many of his peers; he was not an articulate speaker; he was not even as seasoned a military professional as the commanders of the British forces that he was to face. Yet, his vision, his conviction, his character, his integrity, and his leadership, enabled him to help defeat what was then the world’s most powerful nation.
Washington lived and worked in a time of brilliant philosophers, orators and political activists. Among the great minds active during Washington’s time were Sir Robert Walpole, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, David Hume, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. Their theories and ideas were influential and had a great impact on social thought and political action.
Yet at the three major junctions in the founding of our nation, the leader chosen to lead us was George Washington. During the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention and the selection of the first President, leaders of the revolution, intellectuals and people of action alike, trusted and turned to Washington to lead the American people.
There was another popular revolution in the 1700s: The French Revolution. Its defining leader was Napoleon Bonaparte. But his actions turned out to be a betrayal to the Revolution. He ended the rule of a democratic governing body in 1799, and then he declared himself Emperor in 1801. In 1810, he even married the grandniece of Marie Antoinette.
Washington and Napoleon both shared a commitment to winning the battles they waged. But Washington understood that HIS was a war for independence; for a complete break with the past. Unlike Napoleon, Washington embraced the ideals of the American Revolution: The purpose of independence was the creation of a republican, constitutional government whose leaders would be chosen by the people and whose powers would be constrained.
Perhaps Washington’s greatest moment came in Newburgh, New York, in March l783. Mounting grievances by Continental army officers were creating mutinous conditions: arrears in pay, failure to settle food and clothing accounts, and Congress’ lack of action in making provisions for pensions.
Washington was given a written call for a meeting of general and field officers. Accompanying the call for the meeting was an anonymous appeal that unless their demands were met, the officers should refuse to disband when the war ended. A potential outcome: The establishment of a monarchy with George Washington as king.
Washington realized that unless he took control of the meeting, he faced the prospect of a military coup. He took a letter from his pocket describing the financial problems confronting Congress. After reading a portion of the letter with difficulty, Washington reached into his coat pocket and took out a pair of reading glasses.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” Washington read the remainder of the letter and then left without saying another word. Washington's men were deeply moved, even shamed, and many were in tears. They cast a unanimous vote, endorsing the rule of Congress. Thus, the civilian government was preserved and the experiment of democracy in America continued.
Reflecting on Newburgh, Jefferson commented that: “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of the liberty it was intended to establish.”
Harry Truman observed that, “[People] make history, and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” What we need from the leaders we elect in November 2012 is what George Washington and Abraham Lincoln gave to our nation: Vision, conviction, compassion, integrity and leadership.