WHERE HAS COMMON SENSE GONE? No. 20, Thomas Paine – May 2011-
In response to Where Has Common Sense Gone, No.19 “ Where are the Elephants” a very good friend of mine gave me a copy of an article that appeared in “Influential and Controversial Readings in American Politics”. It was extracted from The American Commonwealth pp.58-64, authored by James Bryce and published in 1899.
The gist of the article answers the question of the missing elephants by clearly stating there are none in American political circles today. By “today” the author meant The Year of OUR LORD – 1899. I was struck by the reasons given and the resulting recognition that many of the same reasons, persist to this day, along with a few new ones. How is it that a lack of statesman-like, competent, moral, honest and God fearing politicians can persist when the evident need for them is so great?
Perhaps we as a nation expect too much of our politicians. It should be obvious to all that no matter how low we have allowed the presidential bar to settle, we still get even less than our reasonable expectations. Surely this does not have to be the case with the Office of the President, which is arguably the greatest and most powerful office in the world. I suppose it could be possible our original standards for the office, conditioned to a different time in history, were too rigorous to have any present application. Let’s try to address this proposition and then go on to determine what might have gone wrong and what, if any, possible solutions are available to us as a nation today.
America is one of the very few countries in which a bountiful career and recognition in any field is open to even the most common of men, provided they have the ability, and the work ethic required to get them there.
What about our founding fathers? They, almost universally, started life as Englishmen living in the Colonies and ended life as proud and notable Americans. They were well educated to European standards which were the best in the world at that time. They were men of property or supreme talent, or both. They believed in America and were never hesitant to place the national interest before their own. They were able to ascertain correctly what the national interest should rightly be and they looked far beyond the next election. ‘”Down to the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, all Presidents had been statesmen in the European sense of the word, men of education, of administrative experience, of a certain largeness of view and dignity of character. All except the first two had served in the great office of the Secretary of State and all were well known to the nation for the part they had played.’” They established the framework for the greatest nation the world has ever seen at a time when a diplomatic miscue could have given rise to disaster for the young nation.
What happened commencing with the election of Andrew Jackson? Until the time of the Civil War all presidents were either career politicians such as Van Buren, Polk, Pierce, and Buchanan or successful soldiers, such as Jackson, Harrison or Taylor whom their party found useful as figureheads. A couple of them, like Fillmore were accidental presidents, Fillmore ascending to the office after the death of Taylor. Fillmore has been given partial credit for the Compromise of 1850 which delayed the start of the Civil War, but did nothing to solve the underlying regional differences between the states, and in fact made the war more intense once it began. Jackson is the only one who had enough accomplishments to his credit to warrant his name being remembered today as anything but “one of the former Presidents” .Intellectually they were dwarfs compared to the real leaders of that generation, Clay, Calhoun and Webster.
Abraham Lincoln began a new day in the office of the presidency. He rose from the most humble of beginnings to the highest office in the land by diligent effort and impeccable moral character. The difficult decisions he made, while President , exemplified his desire to preserve the nation as opposed to preserving his personal popularity. This desire, which ultimately cost him his life, made him no stranger to danger. He was well aware there had been at least three previous attempts on his life, yet he never wavered when confronted with seemingly impossible decisions. He always tried to do what was best for the country even when a bad decision could lead to horrible consequences. He knew the best possible decision was always better than no decision at all during a time of crisis. He met crisis head on with an open mind instead of an open mouth as is the common practice today.
Today, diplomacy is largely a lost art among American political leaders. Their mainstay certainly appears to be jawboning and rhetoric. The list of twenty-seven Presidents following Lincoln contains at most only four or five examples of Presidential quality men, none of whom should be rated as highly as our initial lot of Presidents. What has happened ? Where are the elephants? Where has common sense gone? Why does this country continue to elect Men like Hoover, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Clinton, Bush and Obama.
On the one hand, they are elected because of popular dissatisfaction with the immediately preceding President who was elected for the same reasons. This public perception of poor performance or ineptness in office, or faulty moral character, or open hostility towards significant components of the general population can explain why the shift , at election time, is made from one political party’s candidate to the candidate of another party, but it does not account for the reasons the candidates put forward by the political parties are almost universally undistinguished. This fact, in turn, leads to the population making a selection based on the best of bad choices, even if the average voter does not see it that way at the time his vote is cast. However, by the end of a President’s tenure in office you can rest assured most of the population will hold a more critical view of the departing President. A view they would have done well to invoke before his election. Why is this so often the case? Where has common sense gone?
On the other hand, the reasons for a field of poor candidates are manifold. The list of reasons is long, but a few notable examples will help the reader understand why presidential quality candidates are seldom found and encouraged to campaign.
Firstly, the United States has a poorly organized civil service that does nothing to promote the development of statecraft. Those persons of quality education with a true desire to become national leaders are actively suppressed after attaining a somewhat respectable height in our politically charged civil service system. If those persons do not run afoul of civil service union activity early in their careers, they are all too often later discouraged by the pervasive appointment of political hacks to the senior foreign posts. Postings which could, if properly utilized, provide the best diplomatic training grounds for future national leaders. Today the universal custom is to award ambassadorships on the basis of political patronage. Ability or diplomatic skill and training are seldom even considered as attributes for the job. Some ambassadors have done a good job, but far too many ambassadors, while wealthy, educated and successful either by way of commerce or inheritance, have also been completely lacking in the civil service training that would most help them make their assignment a success for our country. Even the great office of Secretary of State has often been awarded for political reasons as opposed to reasons of national interest. Presently our country suffers from the appointment of a Secretary who is clearly out of her depth, but was appointed for the sole reason of appeasing a competing presidential candidate.
Where has common sense gone? How can a President appoint a Secretary of State candidate solely on the basis of his personal political ambitions instead of what is good for the country? Think about this carefully. Why did our founding fathers once in the President’s office appoint only the best and most able individuals to high posts, even when those persons were of a different political persuasion? They did it because that was best for the country. Now think about why our present President has surrounded himself with appointments that are a mixture of political ideologues, unskilled and even patently dishonest persons and some of questionable moral fiber. Try to think of any positive accomplishments any of them have made for our country. Try hard! Ready to give up yet?
Secondly, we should consider the methods and habits of Congress. Political life as structured today provides few opportunities for personal distinction. The news is dominated today by persons of the caliber of a Harry Reid or a Nancy Pelosi or a Barber Boxer or a John Bonner. Not a single one of these persons is willing to take a hard, well considered and appropriate decision that is good for the country. They are too engaged in a political popularity process to be able to recognize what is good and what is right for the country even though what is best may be unpopular with their constituents at the moment. They may give lip service to what is best for the country but in the final analysis they will always side with political expediency. This is the weakness of a republican form of government. It is a weakness exacerbated by the quality of persons elected to public office; but it does not have to be a fatal weakness, NOT UNLESS IT IS ALLOWED TO PROGRESS TO AN ABSOLUTE EXTREME, WHICH IS SOLELY THE CONSIDERATION OF HOW ONE’S CONSTITUANTS ARE LIKELY TO VOTE, RATHAR THAN WHAT IS NEEDED BY THE ENTIRE COUNTRY. Show me a leader who avoids taking a hard or unpopular decision and I will show you a leader in name only.
Further more, in today’s world of multiple sources of instantaneous communication, eminent men make more enemies, and give those enemies more assailable points, than more obscure men do. This then seemingly makes them far less desirable candidates. While it is true their name is more widely known and they have made many friends, it is also true that they have made some errors during a long career, errors which are capable of being magnified into grievous offenses by those persons desiring to do so. No man is long in the public eye and plays a part in important affairs without giving the opportunity for intense criticism by his opponents. Intense indeed is the light that is cast upon a Presidential candidate, searching out all of the caprices of a past life. Hence, when the choice is between a brilliant and worthy man, and a safe man of whom very little is actually known, the safe man is somehow preferred. Public feeling, strong enough to support a man without conspicuous, positive merits, is seldom strong enough to support a man of great ability who possess some positive faults. Party loyalty in America is so ingrained any candidate put forward by a party will get the full party vote no matter how lacking in any demonstrable merit. The ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrity.
The average American voter has a low conception of the qualities required to make a statesman. The American voter likes a candidate to sound sensible, vigorous and above all magnetic. The voter does not value to the same degree originality, profundity or wide knowledge and superior ability demonstrated in some other arena. This is a mistake to the detriment of our country.
We should be encouraged however. A few strong persons have started to appear on the scene. They are willing to take decisions that are unpopular with the entrenched few in order to benefit the many who are less politically organized. We absolutely must continue to identify them and support them at every opportunity if we are ever going to rise above the political morass our country is experiencing today. We must let the traits of character, integrity, and national purpose dominate our future choices for candidates to high office. If we do not take a strong stand BEFORE the political process winnows out the most able candidates we will continue to suffer from poor and often incompetent representation.
We should be further encourages by a new class of voter who has begun to appear on the scene. A voter who is oriented towards good quality candidates rather that candidates favored by a political machine. Voters who are not bound by the past but who are willing and able to determine the qualities requisite for a superior candidate. Voters who are not compelled to vote a straight party ticket just because they are opposed to the political principles of a different political party. Voters who recognize the country needs good leaders of any persuasion. Leaders who will do what is best for the country as a whole even if differing with the voter on certain points. Our country deserves elected officials of the highest quality and merit. We should never settle for anything less and we should continue to make this point clear to all elected officials present and future.
Lastly, we should always remember the merits of a good President are one thing and those of a candidate another thing. At least one eminent American, when challenged to become a candidate for the highest office in the land, said….’”Gentlemen, let there be no mistake. I should make a good President, but a very bad candidate’” This was all the cronies of his political party needed to hear before they quickly focused their attentions on another far less able candidate.
Please do some serious homework before you vote in the next election. Study all claims both pro and con for each candidate. It will not take you long to begin to recognize political rhetoric from actual fact. Some pro claims will be found false on closer scrutiny. Some contrary claims will also be proved incorrect on careful observation. Then make your choice based on who is best for the Country, State or Community and not just for you personally, and do not forget to remove political hacks from office as quickly as possible. In this way you can demonstrate some statesmanship yourself.
Above all else, vote for a President of high moral character and great ability, a President who will be good for the Country, a President who will not tolerate poor performance by important and highly placed subordinates. Vote for President who will leave a legacy of distinguished service long after he has faded from the political scene. If a political ruling class is standing in the way of superior candidates, get rid of them by voting them out. If the media is attacking superior candidates as a way of promoting their own choices of lesser ability, take the media to task. Make your well considered thoughts known. Be loud, clear, concise and accurate. You owe yourself and your Country nothing less.
T.P. – 2011