THE BLOG

The Presidency and Moral Courage

02/21/2015 10:50 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2015

At a private club, in front of friendly, fellow conservatives in Manhattan this past Thursday, former New York City mayor and former presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, said of President Obama that "I do not believe that the president loves America." Asked the next day on Fox News, another friendly venue, if he wanted to apologize for his statement, Giuliani said "Not at all. I want to repeat it."

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who may well announce that he is running for president and who was the subject of the fundraiser at which Giuliani spoke, was asked on CNBC to comment on Giuliani's remarks. He had two things to say. "The mayor can speak for himself. I'm not going to comment on what the president thinks or not," was the first. "I'm in New York. I'm used to people saying things that are aggressive," was the second. In short, Walker decided to evade the question and take a swipe at a key part of the America that he, in contrast to the president, would have us believe that he loves.

Other prospective Republican presidential candidates have had nothing to say about Giuliani's attack. They neither defended the president nor Giuliani. After all, why take the political risk?

Much of the recent criticism of the president by Giuliani and other Republicans has been that Obama won't himself take a risk and use the phrase "Islamic terrorism." Sen. Ted Cruz, another presidential aspirant, said recently that Obama was "an apologist for radical Islamic terrorists." What Giuliani, Cruz, and others fail to grasp is that the president is taking a risk not to lash out in this way. He is instead trying to thread a very thin needle in the war on terror. He certainly knows that ISIS consists of terrorists who are perverting Islam as they behead, burn, and indiscriminately slaughter their way through the Middle East. At the same time, he is aware that the vast majority of the world's 2.1 billion Muslims are not terrorists. To appear to indict the religion itself could incite hatred of American Muslims at the same time that it plays into the story line that the United States is anti-Muslim, thus encouraging more people to join the ISIS ranks.

Would it be easier for the president to hop aboard the "let's kill Islamic terrorists" bandwagon? Of course. It would be popular, understandable, and a political rallying cry for a president who could use all the support he can get. That he refuses to take that route in his public comments is, even if you think he is wrong, an example of moral courage.

Moral courage is essential in a president. Washington had it when he refused to go to war with England in the 1790s, knowing that the fledgling United States was not ready to take on the British again. Moral courage was what Lincoln had when he told the nation, in his Second Inaugural, that the Civil War was God's punishment for slavery and that reconciliation demanded replacing hatred with charity. Moral courage was what Eisenhower had when he refused advice to use atomic weapons against China and in Vietnam. Moral courage was what George H.W. Bush had when he held back from taking over Iraq in the first Gulf War, understanding that this exceeded his mandate and could produce what in fact happened when George W. Bush did not show similar restraint.

Moral courage exists when a principle is at stake, you have much to lose, and you press ahead - thoughtfully. Giuliani had nothing to lose, so speaking out was easy. Walker did but stayed silent. In London the week before, he defined moral courage in the negative when he answered a reporter's query about whether he believed in the theory of evolution. "For me, I'm going to punt on that one," he said.

Contrast that with presidential candidate John McCain, who in 2008 defended candidate Obama in front of a Republican crowd that hurled shouts that Obama was a terrorist and an Arab. McCain's risky reply, for which he received groans and boos: "I have to tell you, he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States."

John McCain loves America. He also recognizes that a president with whom he has profound disagreements also loves America. Rudy Giuliani and many current Republican presidential hopefuls seem to lack both the mental complexity to understand the international dimensions of the presidency and the moral courage to refrain from easy yet counterproductive, rhetoric.

Giuliani's sole statement to qualify his comment was that he accepts that President Obama is a "patriot." Perhaps he should read the definition of patriotism, which is: "devoted love, support, and defense of one's country." Muddled thinking and inciting others to hate the president, by any contender for the presidency, demonstrate a lack of moral courage and patriotism. If you love your country, stop encouraging hatred of other Americans.