Wednesday, January 10, 2007

To Be Normal May Be to Be Great

Matt Brown, one of my favorite bloggers, writes:
Looking back now on all the coverage about President Ford, the recurring theme driven by Brian Williams and his kind was it's so great that Jerry Ford was such a normal person. Yes, that's exactly what we want from our presidents - someone average. Can you imagine what our country would be like today if the greatest thing one could say about George Washington - or Abraham Lincoln - is how normal he was?
There was a lot of that element in the media's coverage of Ford, the celebration of his "normality."

But, to my mind, what the media described as "normal" is anything but normal, especially in today's presidential politics.

Ford was charitable to his opponents, devoid of egotism, simple in his appetites, guileless, and straight-talking, among other things. He was normal only in the way that Eagle Scouts, which Ford was, are normal.

As a member of the House and as minority leader of the Republicans there, he showed himself adept at cutting legislative deals. So, he was no naif, even if Lyndon Johnson told aides that the Michigander had played too much football without his helmet.

And Ford's Midwestern ways didn't keep him from fighting for his principles as President. He wielded the veto a lot, precisely because he was opposed to a government that spent too much or intruded too much.

In 2001, he described himself as a conservative fiscally and a liberal on human rights. In fact, that's the perfect description of the brand of conservatism that prevailed thirty years ago. It was a conservatism that believed in small government that stayed out of personal matters, such as what one did one's bedroom. It also believed in government living within its means and in a militarily strong United States that understood the subtle use of power to achieve national ends. (Indeed, people like Barry Goldwater, the father of modern American conservatism, would probably regard the policies of the current administration as big government liberalism.)

I didn't (and don't) agree with Ford on abortion. He described himself as pro-choice. There were other issues about which I disagreed with him.

But I think he was a great person and a great President partly because he was normal. To be normal isn't necessarily to be average. The normal seeker of the presidency, one unmoved by the usual base impulses of their breed, still in touch with commonly-held virtues, and psychologically healthy, is an extraordinary person!

Just how extraordinary was brought home for me when, a number of years ago, I read about a lunch meeting Michael Dukakis had with an eminent presidential historian prior to the Massachusetts governor's announcement that he was running for President. Before they parted, Dukakis asked the historian, who had known every President from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, what all the chief executives had in common. The historian thought for a second and then said, "They were all very strange."

From a lifetime of studying our Presidents, I think I understand that assessment. Our chief executives have often been driven by a need to prove themselves--think John Quincy Adams and Richard Nixon--or by a kind of egotism--think Andrew Jackson and William McKinley--that renders them anything but normal. Many, if not most, have been dysfunctional, strange.

Maybe instead of describing Ford as normal, the media types should have used the term functional. Ford took the presidential oath without ever having suffered from White House fever, without an apparent psychological need to prove himself, and without the painful self-doubt that drives lesser people to abuse power.

The two Presidents most commonly named as the greatest are, of course, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But my study of both of their lives indicates that the things that made them great in the presidency were painful experiences that forced them to let go of pompous self-importance.

Each--Washington in his humilations during the French and Indian War, Lincoln in the ongoing crucible of the Civil War and the personal tragedy he endured during that period--descended to greatness. Both proud peacocks churning with ambitions for fame in their younger years, their respective crucibles convinced them that they were mortals and that the only way to become the leaders they believed they were to be was to descend to a humble functionality.

Their experiences, in some ways, reflect those of Joseph, the son of Jacob, in the Old Testament book of Genesis. Joseph always knew he was meant to be a leader and because of it, as a kid, was insufferable. It was only after enduring slavery and imprisonment that he was ready to be the leader he was meant to be. Adversity had tempered him. Another Old Testament figure, Moses, aware at a younger age that he was to be a leader nonetheless had to be seasoned by humility before he could descend to greatness.

Leaders who manifest true greatness, who make lasting contributions, are those most in touch with the reality of their own humanity, who have no need to lord their status over others. They can be confident and resolute in their use of power. But they take their work seriously, not themselves. That's not normal because most of us, Presidents or not, allow our heads to be turned by power or acclaim, even in small doses.

Jerry Ford never needed to be President. He had descended to greatness as a human being long before he took the oath of office on August 9, 1974.

We could use more normal people to serve as President. Normal, it turns out, is extraordinary.

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