A good friend, whose political awareness I admire, suggested I write an article about the current lack of statesmen, in Washington specifically and in politics generally. After months of unsuccessful attempts, last week it all tumbled out of my brain with surprising clarity.
My family was not particularly political when I was a child. One of my grandmothers expressed displeasure with a certain president, and my father was given to sporadic tirades about Congress. I told one of the cafeteria ladies Adlai Stevenson should be elected in 1956 because President Eisenhower had already had his turn.
As a kid I watched the nominating conventions because I liked recording delegate votes on the grid printed in TV Guide. I was inspired by JFK and wanted to walk past his casket to pay my respects. With great pride and anticipation, I voted for the first time in the 1972 presidential election.
My discontent surfaced in 2000 when political analysts began to use the “red states” and “blue states” labels. I feel no particular allegiance to any political party. And I witnessed too much detrimental labeling in my teaching career; I am more than wearied by the constant conservative-liberal-moderate tags attached to every issue and every individual.
I accept that our form of government is noisy. Ideas must be aired and cussed and discussed – it is the American way. When the shouting stops, all sides, hopefully, can find a solution based on common areas of agreement. This process is described as “bipartisan,” a word I heard more regularly when I was growing up.
“Gridlock” is the current buzzword. Here is how my mind conceptualizes today’s lack of bipartisanship: Each group – and there are many – inhabits its own box. No one looks out; everyone inside agrees with everyone else in the box and rails against all the other boxes. On the door hangs a checklist of requirements which new box members must accept and promote. The mere mention of any other box is unacceptable; ideas from any another box are immediately rejected out of hand; the goal of each box is an America that completely conforms to the posted checklist.
Because outside-the-box thinking often seems like a thing of the past, we are in dire need of what my friend suggested: statesmen. We need leaders who do not use checklists to solve difficult problems. We need leaders who move from box to box in pursuit of reasonable approaches assembled from as many boxes as possible.
Abraham Lincoln immediately comes to mind. Until recently, what I knew about the 16th president was what school kids learn: his honesty, his rural upbringing, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address. And then I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s outstanding Team of Rivals; it profoundly altered my political views.
The vastly-underestimated Lincoln won the 1860 Republican presidential nomination over men with far flashier credentials and was inaugurated just five weeks before the Civil War began. The basis of Goodwin’s book, which she researched and wrote for ten years, is that Lincoln named three of those Republican opponents to his cabinet. During that fractious time, he needed to hear and consider every possible point of view.
I cannot imagine any 2016 presidential candidate from any party even contemplating such a move. During what thus far has passed for “debates,” I have observed name calling, bullying, one-upmanship, and strict checklist adherence. With the ridiculous exercise of campaign-by-Twitter and opinion polls, it is much harder these days to vote with pride and anticipation.
Then on Thursday a statesman arrived in Washington and made his way to the Capitol. There is no doubt that Pope Francis came with his own agenda; but he also explained to members of Congress and, by extension, to all Americans, the means to accomplishing worthy goals. He filled his speech with “common,” “cooperation,” “solidarity,” “respect,” “community,” and “reciprocal” while rejecting “hostility,” “reductionism,” and “polarization.” In fact, he even provided the definition of a statesman: “one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness.”
The Pope inspired me with his vision. He spoke admiringly about four Americans, of which Lincoln was one, who dedicated their considerable efforts to the common good. I was not sure how to interpret congressional applause breaking out halfway through the Pope’s recitation of the Golden Rule, but I was not at all surprised that lawmakers were up to old tricks just a few hours later.
Whenever my father groused about everyone in Washington, I reminded him – rather arrogantly, I must admit – that WE are the government. But now I finally understand we ARE the government. We must search for our own personal statesmanship. Each of us must practice a spirit of openness, with the interests of others in mind. Each of us must leave the box, tear up the checklist, and work for the common good. Each of us must add “opponents” to the cabinet. And each of us must live the entire Golden Rule, not just the as-others-would-do- unto-us” part.
Many fear we humans are harming the environment our grandchildren will have to inhabit. Many worry about insurmountable fiscal problems we are leaving for our grandchildren to solve. It is my belief that, unless we all practice statesmanship in our lives and in our country, we will bequeath to our grandchildren something even worse: an irrevocably-broken system. We all must be statesmen who, with the interests of all in mind, seize this moment in a spirit of openness.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976 to 2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn- Gymnasium in Springe.