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Three Most Powerful Words

Two examples of events in American history, both at once inspiring and cheering


The philosopher George Santayana’s gloomy aphorism about how the failure to learn from history ensures that it will repeat itself also contains a silver lining. Knowing some history, it would seem, can come in very handy beyond enabling one to ace a round of Trivial Pursuit.

When the going gets rough, when the present seems hopeless and the future even bleaker, past experiences in which we succeeded in emerging from difficult straits can buoy us with an optimism grounded not in wishful thinking but factual reality. Here are two examples of events in American history — one from two centuries ago, the other of only two decades’ vintage — both of which are at once inspiring and cheering.

In a recent column, Jeff Jacoby writes:

Like a lot of Americans, I worry about what is happening to our nation’s social fabric. The loss of civility in public life is alarming, and I watch with dismay as countless figures on both right and left continually crank up the anger and the decibel level, jeering and smearing those they differ from ideologically as traitors, haters, and fools…. We are heading in the wrong direction, and it cannot end well. Or can it?

Jeff goes on to survey the political landscape in the first years of the 19th century, which he says, “were pretty toxic, too.” He describes how the presidential campaign of 1800 between Federalist John Adams and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson “was replete with hateful smears that are shocking even by today’s standards.” The Adams camp warned that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will openly be taught and practiced,” while the Jefferson people called his opponent “a rageful, lying, warmongering fellow.” So much for longing, in this current heated political moment of ours, for what apparently were the bad old days.

In the ensuing years, heavily Federalist New England so abhorred Democratic-Republican presidents Jefferson and Madison that there was serious talk in the Northeast of secession. “And then,” writes Jacoby, “things got better:”

James Monroe, elected president in 1816 on the Democratic-Republican ticket, made it a priority to restore solidarity and unity to American public life. He selected a New Englander and former Federalist stalwart, John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, to be his secretary of state.

Three months after his inauguration in 1817, Monroe embarked on a goodwill tour of the Northeast, something no president since George Washington had done. “In New England, so recently the scene of rabid Federalist discontent,” writes historian Alan Brinkley, “he was greeted everywhere with enthusiastic demonstrations.”

To this day, Monroe’s presidency is remembered by historians as the Era of Good Feelings. Disagreements didn’t end and controversies didn’t disappear, of course. But the new president — the last Revolutionary War hero to reach the White House, and a successful diplomat — was widely admired, and his effort to bank the fires of political hostility was successful. So successful, in fact, that when Monroe ran for reelection in 1820, he faced no opposition. He and Washington are the only two presidents in American history to run for president unopposed.

A second example is the aftermath of the contested election in 2000 of George W. Bush, the closest presidential election in American history, with Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore separated by about five hundred Florida votes. Some of us can still taste the bitter political climate during the month of legal maneuvering that followed.

Those tense weeks culminated in the ruling of the United States Supreme Court on December 12, just days before the Electoral College was to meet, that the recount by the state of Florida violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause, ensuring that Bush would be the next president. What happened next was recently recounted by Mona Charen, conservative commentator and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center:

Al Gore immediately accepted the decision. He instructed his staff that no one was to criticize the Supreme Court, and then he delivered the most elevating concession speech in recent American history. Here are his words:

I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may G-d bless his stewardship of this country. Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly, neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the Court’s decision, I accept it. . . .And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession. . . .

While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to a political party. This is America and we put country before party; we will stand together behind our new president.

Reflecting on that episode of not so long ago, Ms. Charen writes:

I despised Al Gore and thought his victory would represent a grave evil for the nation. I followed every twist and turn of the recount and the legal maneuvers with manic intensity — never for one second considering the possibility that the Democrat actually could have won. I interpreted every Democratic move as a sign of bad faith….

[When the Supreme Court issued its ruling] I was thrilled and deeply relieved. But I was a bit worried about what the effect might be among Democrats. Would they feel cheated? Would they accept it? Would there be violence?

Gore’s speech was a revelation to me. It helped me to see how much partisanship had warped my perceptions. Gore had different policy priorities, but he believed in the same principles I did. He was loyal to the rule of law and to the Constitution. And that’s what matters most….

It could have gone very differently… Because of his personal disappointment, he could have issued baseless charges of partisan influence or even of corrupt payoffs. He could have undermined people’s faith in our institutions in many ways. And considering the raw state of the country’s nerves at the time, he could have done real harm. Instead, he chose to reaffirm faith in institutions, and to put his own feelings aside in the name of national unity. In short, he acted as a real leader.

I can identify with Charen’s words because I too had — then and even more so now — a very low opinion of Al Gore, both personally and politically. But even misguided, immoral people can have redeeming qualities, and even someone manifestly unfit to be a leader can still possess a quality that is essential for leadership.

Before the 2008 election, I wrote that a prime argument against the candidacy of Barack Obama was that he “has never once mouthed the words ‘I was wrong’ on the surge in Iraq, nor, come to think of it, on anything else of import. Those words don’t appear to exist in his lexicon — and that’s perhaps the most troubling thing one can know about a nation’s leader.”

I still believe that, because on the long list of laudable personal qualities and moral attributes, there are a handful that are particularly valuable — essential — for leadership. The ability to admit error and change course is one of them, and the ability to place the interests of those one leads over one’s own is another. James Monroe and Al Gore (at least when it counted most) both possessed that latter trait.

Both abilities, deriving from a measure of humility, are as essential as ever, and both give hope for the future in a trying time.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 826. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com



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