At 4:00 this morning, I read We’re The Only Plane In The Sky which details the experience of President George W. Bush and those who were with him on 9/11 for the first 7 hours after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. It is a detailed account from the individual memories of those who were there—news correspondents, military personnel, the Air Force One pilot, air traffic controllers, members of the Secret Service and the CIA. It pulled me into the experience in a way that was sobering; it gave me an important perspective to round out what I knew about that day and things that have transpired since.
My response to what I read was similar to the way I felt nearly a year ago after reading What the President Secretly Did at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an excerpt from Joshua DuBois’ book: The President’s Devotional. This account added to my knowledge of the tragedy in Newtown, CT, images of President Barack Obama meeting with every single grief-stricken family, separately, one right after the other, just two days after their child was senselessly killed. For many days after reading it, I found myself pondering what it must have cost him emotionally to express compassion in the hardest way possible –face to face, one family at a time.
On Saturday, I read an account of President John F. Kennedy’s impromptu speech at the University of Michigan Union on October 14, 1960, when he issued the students a challenge to use their educations to serve their country. It is said that this speech was the flint that started the fire that has spread to become what we know today as The Peace Corps. I was telling people I wanted to someday join The Peace Corps. while I was still in elementary school–before I was fully aware of the tragic way JFK’s life had ended–and long before I knew that The Peace Corps. was part of his legacy.
In 2012, the controversial movie Argo told the story of what took place behind closed doors in 1980 to bring home the 6 U.S. hostages in Iran who were trapped in the U.S. Embassy that was overrun by protesters. Argo was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning three.
During the closing credits of Argo, the distinctive voice of President Jimmy Carter, who was in office at the time of the crisis, explains that Canada had not received their share of the credit for the successful retrieval of the U.S. hostages. He goes on to say: “when the movie was successful…there was a great temptation to tell all the stories so that maybe I could take a little bit of credit for it, but we had to keep it secret. Tony Mendez has gone down in CIA history, after his retirement, as one of the most important CIA operatives of all time. Eventually, we got every hostage back home safe and sound, and we upheld the integrity of our country, and we did it peacefully.”
And then of course, there were many moments in which President Ronald Reagan took the high road, comforted a country, blessed nobility, and inspired us with his reassuring grace. Such as the day the Challenger exploded, when he postponed his annual address and instead delivered a speech aimed directly to children who had watched the coverage of the tragedy live. He said to them and to all of us: “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”
In looking at these stories together, I am reminded that it seems we too soon forget the finest hours of those who serve on our behalf, while remembering and keeping alive the stories of things they have said or done which lacked integrity.
As we prepare to watch what is likely to be the ugliest presidential debate in history this evening, I lament the lack of integrity that has become a hallmark of this presidential race. It has created friction in friendships and fed the fires of cynicism in our country. It has triggered traumatic memories in both women and men that they have worked long and hard to forget. And more than once, it has caused us as a country to feel shame at the spectacle of our political process.
It is tempting to look at the situations I’ve described above and pine for a leader we have known who conducted him or herself with honor and dignity and led with both courage and compassion. That is the way of nostalgia. But the truth is that leaders are human, and the influences that cause a leader to act are legion, often requiring a decision between something bad and something worse. And for every moment of grace, it is likely that they have had moments in which they fell short of what we – or they – expect of themselves.
Few people are entirely honorable or corrupt; we all have the capacity to be both. We are simultaneously saints and sinners, sometimes rising above what we dared to imagine we could do, and sometimes failing miserably in ways that haunt us forever.
And so I ask myself, since there is no perfect candidate and no perfect voter, what is my responsibility in this turbulent time of politics in the land that I love when so much is riding on the people we vote into office? And what came to me was a quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, surely the most controversial First Lady to ever call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue her home: “Children live up to or down to whatever you expect of them.”
Maybe one way we can each help raise the bar of leadership today, is to look for the best in those we are asking to lead by first, seeking the best in one another. If we intentionally let go of conversations that recount the ugly, and instead hold up and retell stories of one another’s finest hours, we might begin to reverse the trend of cynicism that has become a cultural habit producing endless anxiety under our beautiful spacious skies.
My hope is that such a commitment might start a movement that could change the tenor of the conversations in this country and create a wave of hope, raising the bar of expectations such that we might all, together, begin to reach for it once again.