Humility in history
When I first started writing this column a little over two years ago, one of my first efforts was one entitled “The Power of Humility.”
In that column, I extolled the importance of setting one’s own ego aside and working for the greater good. Not only is it a positive personal trait, but a humble person can often accomplish so much more simply by following that path.
We don’t see a lot of humility in politics. It takes a big ego to compete on the national stage, so perhaps it’s not a trait that lends itself well to that arena.
But, there are examples we can learn from. So, in this column, I’d like to cite just a few from our presidential history.
There wasn’t much doubt who would be our first president. The leadership George Washington showed in the revolutionary years had made the choice easy.
Washington could likely have served as long as he wanted, but he largely detested politics and he especially despised political parties and the developing feud between partisans like Jefferson and Hamilton. In 1796, he stepped aside as president after just two terms.
Washington’s actions may have been the result of his health and his dislike of the office, but the precedent he set would serve the nation well. It is often said that the most important election in a young nation is not the first, but the second, because if successful, it can demonstrate the peaceful transition of power and that the rule of law is greater than any one individual.
Many Americans probably think that the two terms to which presidents are limited to today have always been in our law. In reality, it was tradition long before it was law and it was to Washington that we owe this tradition.
There is a new movie starting this week about Abraham Lincoln. The story it probably doesn’t tell is about the strength of character it took for the 16th president to build his cabinet. Rather than put together a group filled with sycophants and yes-men as most presidents do, Lincoln brought in his rivals. Men like Edwin M. Stanton — who had once called Lincoln a “long armed ape” — Salmon P. Chase, William H. Seward, and Edward Bates served with Lincoln as he worked to keep the nation together.
These men had been Lincoln’s political foes, but he sought out their advice and counsel and used their expertise to make his decisions. Knowing that the wisdom of a diverse group is stronger than any individual made Lincoln a far better president than had he gone the typical route.
(For more on Lincoln and his cabinet, read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.)
Franklin Roosevelt was another president who faced great crises: first the depression, then worldwide war.
During the Great Depression, Roosevelt was often approached with ideas to incorporate into the New Deal programs and policies. Faced with a group of labor leaders who wanted their ideas introduced, the president is reported to have told them, “I agree with you. I want to do it. Now, make me do it.”
The quote may be apocryphal — I’ve never been able to find an original source — but it demonstrates an understanding of the political world that many don’t get. Roosevelt understood that he could accomplish little on his own. He needed a grassroots movement to create the interest and momentum for him to get both the popular and political support to accomplish what was needed to rebuild the country’s economy. Had he tried to go it alone, he’d have enjoyed far less success.
Lyndon Johnson was known for many things, but humility was not one of them. He was, by most accounts a political bully, who got what he wanted through whatever mechanism he thought was necessary for the task.
But, he too could respond to political pressure and he understood the cost of doing what was right. Upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson commented to an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation.”
The president proved prescient. Nixon used his famous “southern strategy” to appeal to disaffected racist southern Democrats. These later became the Reagan Democrats and the south is now solidly Republican two generations after Johnson’s comment. Voting in southern states is completely polarized by race.
Johnson knew what it would cost both him and his party to do the right thing, but he did it anyway. That takes not just humility, but guts as well.
The election was yesterday, though I’m writing this column before the vote. Let us hope that whomever was just elected president is willing to use the above examples to guide his behavior.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at email@example.com.