05/31/2010 06:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Wanted: Leaders Who Tell the Truth?

On March 4, 1865, with the Civil War finally approaching a victorious conclusion, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address. Rather than satisfy the audience's thirst for celebration and revenge, Lincoln gave a sermon on the meaning of the war, suggesting that it was God's punishment to both North and South for slavery. He also asked all Americans to forgive their enemies, who were, of course, other Americans - "[W]ith malice toward none, with charity for all" - so as to "bind up the nation's wounds."

Regarded by many now as perhaps the greatest of all inaugural addresses, it was not regarded that way at the time. Lincoln expected this. Writing less than two weeks later to New York politician and long-time supporter, ThurlowWeed, Lincoln acknowledged that "I believe it is not immediately popular" but that "It is a truth which I thought needed to be told."

It is hard to imagine a modern president so forcefully telling the nation a truth they do not want to hear, especially one that puts them at fault and asks of them a sacrifice that runs directly counter to their passions. Indeed, Gerald Ford may be the last president who did so when he pardoned and asked the nation to forgive Richard Nixon.

When Americans select a president, they demand integrity. They should. It is an essential ingredient of leadership character. Yet presidents struggle with whether and how to tell the truth - and can pay a costly price for doing so.

In current debates on everything from the war on terrorism to health care to climate change to economic recovery, a frequent public claim is that leaders are not telling the truth. For their part, as they scan polls and schedule town hall meetings, leaders are not sure if their publics can handle the truth. When hearing the truth is difficult, truth telling is also difficult. Until this dangerous dance ends, we will continue to bury real issues and avoid hard choices.

To blame presidents alone for failing to be truthful, however, is to misdiagnose the problem. Leading a nation is not just a matter of the president's character. Character in a president may be a necessary condition to national well-being, but it is not a sufficient one. Character in the people is equally necessary. We must attend to our character not just a politician's.

That does not mean a president cannot play a significant role in shaping the nation's character. There are examples of such leaders, and we can learn from them.

Some might argue that Lincoln is not a fair example - after all, he had just gotten himself re-elected. But he did have a lot to lose. Barely a month later, in showing that he meant what he said to an audience outside the White House, he set lenient terms for previously rebellious states to come back into "their practical relation to the union" and signaled his willingness to open the franchise to educated black soldiers. One of his listeners told a friend that "That's the last speech he'll ever make." That listener was John Wilkes Booth.

In both telling a truth and demanding a sacrifice from his audience, Lincoln met two essential conditions to help shape national character. He asked citizens to confront reality, and he expected them to live up to the best in their human nature. He demanded they take responsibility for what they had helped create. And he believed they could do so. He acted as if they already had moral character.

George Washington understood this as well when he sought to embody in his own behavior as president the virtue he found essential to the success of the republican experiment. In his Farewell Address, still read aloud (but perhaps not quite absorbed) in the Senate each year, he reminded Americans of their responsibilities as citizens to preserve the union, dampen the danger of factions, obey the Constitution, and take up the mantle of leadership he was laying down. He appealed to their duty and honor.

Lincoln and Washington subscribed to the belief that leaders have an obligation to educate, to share their own hard-thought conclusions on public issues and to invite the nation to become learners. They also believed that you build character by expecting the public to rise to challenges and the demands of virtue. Modern leaders, it seems, worry more about how much they can expect the public to tolerate and so, in the end, expect too little.

But history has verified the wisdom of Washington, Lincoln and Ford. The public character did respond, if not readily then ultimately. Washington defined the demands of citizenship, and they still serve as a guide to both the politicians who read his Address and to Americans who have integrated those demands into their political culture. Grant and Lee acted immediately on Lincoln's call for magnanimity, and eventually, though clearly quite belatedly, so did generations of Americans who forged a more inclusive nation. Many more Americans now understand and admire Ford's pardon and see his wisdom in helping the country heal.

Forging character is never easy, and we cannot afford to rely on presidents alone. The republican experiment is being tested again. Americans know the problems they face. They know that they cannot expect solutions without healthy and respectful debate nor without finding ways to pay for them that do not place the burden on their children and grandchildren. They know they must compromise to preserve national unity. They know that their fellow citizens are people of basically good will, not demons in partisan disguise. They know that shouting about problems is not the same thing as fixing them. And they know that it is unhealthy to continue to punish leaders who tell us the truth and expect us to accept responsibility. What we need is leaders who ask us to admit what we know - and act responsibly on that knowledge.

It's time to give our presidents some help. It's not just about their character; it's about ours. Our public character is there, sometimes masked from our own best selves. Lincoln pleaded in his First Inaugural that we bring forth "the better angels of our nature." The nation ignored him for too many years. We should not repeat that mistake again.