Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In one episode of that excellent show, “The Good Place,” a character explains that every U.S. president who had died had ended up in “the Bad Place,” the show’s version of hell. “Except Lincoln.”
The passing of George H. W. Bush has brought forth the to-be-expected hagiographies, the reverential paeans to his management of the end of the Cold War, to his personal grace, to his loving relationship with his wife Barbara, to the beautiful letter he left Bill Clinton upon leaving office and the remarkable friendship he struck up in later years with the man who defeated him.
On the other side of the ledger, dissenting voices have pointed out how nauseating such paeans can be, and more importantly to underscore the many questionable aspects of Bush’s legacy from the Gulf War to the racism of the Willie Horton campaign ad to his administration turning a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic.
Many have also debated — as when John McCain died — whether it is in fact a good rule never to speak ill of the dead when the person passing away is a public figure of great historical significance. Although holding one’s tongue may be good manners at a private funeral, when we continue to live with the public legacy of the dearly departed in question, we ought to be able to register such disagreements we have with that legacy. Otherwise through our silence we allow the man’s apotheosis, and his actions are suddenly beyond the reach of critique.
Bush’s death got me thinking about the nature of national leadership. In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, regarding the Machiavellian emperor Septimius Severus, commented:
Falsehood and insincerity unsuitable as they seem to the dignity of public transactions, offend us with a less degrading idea of meanness than when they are found in the intercourse of private life. In the latter, they discover a want of courage; in the other, only a defect of power: and, as it is impossible for the most able statesman to subdue millions of followers and enemies by their own personal strength, the world, under the name of policy, seems to have granted them a very liberal indulgence of craft and dissimulation.
(As with many things, the current president is an exception. For him, there seems to be no distinction between public and private dishonesty. A pathological liar lies, endlessly in public and in private, and that’s pretty much that. In fact, what Gibbon goes on to say about Septimius seems more fitting for him: “He promised only to betray, he flattered only to ruin.”)
A leader, whether the president of the United States or the prime minister of New Zealand, and no matter how well-meaning or personally virtuous, takes on the sins of his or her country, particularly if that country is an empire. To fail to do so is to fail to be a good leader. Political leaders are sin-eaters, to use that interesting anthropological concept observed in many cultures. A sin-eater who gags and retches is not doing the job very well.
Consider Jimmy Carter. No one questions Carter’s personal virtue, and yet few disagree that his administration was largely a failure. It was as though he was too good for the job.
By the way, this is also the Christian theory of the ultimate leader, the Messiah: Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi.
Lincoln, the one president who, according to “The Good Place,” racked up enough goodness points to go to heaven, was effectively canonized upon his assassination. The Lincoln Memorial was built to resemble a Greek temple, with the sixteenth president sitting at its center as an American god. But Lincoln, let’s not forget, suspended habeas corpus. The precedents he set at that time, in cases such as Ex parte Merryman, formed the basis of the George W. Bush administration’s detention of terror suspects in Guantanamo.
What do we mean, then, when we eulogize a man like George H. W. Bush for service to country? Do we mean that he was always personally virtuous? Surely not; he wasn’t Jesus. Do we mean that he always acted virtuously while executing his office? Surely not, because to always act virtuously is tantamount to incompetence and dereliction of duty when it comes to the presidency. It’s not a job for one who would not get his hands dirty.
What we mean, I think, is that we thank him and such of his presidential peers for taking on the sins of the rest of us. Because, whether we are in favor of a president’s actions or opposed to them, we are all implicated in them. To the extent that a leader must act immorally on the public stage, it is because our shared society is always built on certain immoralities or at least moral contradictions.
Obama bombed terrorists, or maybe just “military age males” who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, through his drone program. Truman dropped atomic bombs on Japan. FDR burned Tokyo to ashes. We can disagree with all of those decisions. But we all live with them, for better or for worse.
Perhaps what makes a truly great leader is the recognition of his or her role as the community’s sin-eater. Lincoln seemed very much to have this idea of a ledger of sin on his mind when he delivered his Second Inaugural. The Civil War would not end, he suggested, “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
A truly terrible leader, on the other hand, is one who makes the rest of us take on his sins.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."