Seeking Statesmen

12/26/2010 02:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Terry Newell Founder, Leadership for a Responsible Society

"A politician is concerned with the next election. A statesman is concerned with the next generation."
-- Gerald Ford

President Obama's recent embrace of a tax-cut-extension deal with Republicans may have done little to enhance his public standing in the short term. Initial polls suggested that Republicans did not approve of him anymore and liberal Democrats liked him less. It's interesting then that, speaking of his reasoning after signing the measure, he used essentially the same words -- perhaps unaware that he was doing so -- as Gerald Ford. Ford was out of office, reflecting on his presidency -- and no doubt his pardon of Richard Nixon -- in preparation for his autobiography, A Time to Heal. President Obama may have been more troubled had he known he was channeling Ford, given that the latter lost the presidency for his statesman-like act.

It's the bane of public servants that Americans want statesmen and stateswomen -- people with the courage to do the right thing for the country despite the personal consequences -- but almost routinely punish them for doing just that. Lincoln was shot after asking for mercy for the defeated South. Wilson was vilified when seeking a way to prevent another World War. Truman was castigated for sacking World War II and Korean War hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur when the latter brazenly disobeyed his Commander-in-Chief. George H.W. Bush was trashed by his own party for allowing a tax increase and thus cooperating with Democrats.

Intuitively, we know we need leaders unafraid to risk themselves for our future benefit. Indeed, we often vocally condemn them for not doing so - until they take action, that is. We often see this given some time -- though rarely do we appreciate it in the moment. Truman is now ranked as one of the best presidents and Ford was not only forgiven by most but was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999 for helping the nation get past Watergate. Truman once quipped that: "A politician is a man who understands government. A statesman is a politician who's been dead for 15 years." He may have been optimistic.

In our private lives, we routinely admire our parents and others who sacrificed some of what they could have been, done and spent to invest in us. We expect them to do so. We regularly sacrifice for our own children for just the same reasons. We take a long-term view, judge our actions against a moral horizon that looks five, 10, even 20 or more years into the future. We consider the future state of those we care deeply about. Yet, in the public realm, we are prone to disparage leaders who attend to the future of the state.

The reasons are legion -- distrust of government; fear of power; concern about our economic needs and prospects; emotions driven by political attacks, ads, and the media; anger at taxes; and just plain selfishness that we can't have what we want. Such reasons explain; they do not excuse.

This is not an easy problem to solve. By their nature, the acts of statesmen and stateswomen are sometimes invisible and more often uncertain as to their outcome when taken -- we can't always know if these actions will help us in the long term -- until the long term comes. But we can tell when leaders seem to be putting our needs above their own short-term advantage. We need to do better at recognizing this -- and cut them some slack (if not giving them a bit of admiration) when they do. If we expect more of our leaders to be statesmen, we should not make them have to wait until they die to be recognized for it.