The President's Failure of Moral Leadership
A Reflection by Dr. Robert P. Sellers
George Washington, the "Father of our Nation" and first president, was said to be so truthful that he felt compelled to confess he had chopped down the cherry tree. Like millions of other American elementary school children over the years, I was taught this story that promoted honesty despite potential bad consequences. Today this is recognized as a myth constructed by one of Washington’s first biographers, Mason Scott Weems, an itinerant minister and Mount Vernon neighbor, in the 1806 edition of his popular book, The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself, and Exemplary to his Young Countrymen. The legend of six year-old George admitting that he used his hatchet to destroy one of his father’s favorite trees, saying “I cannot tell a lie,” has inspired multiple generations of children to believe that presidents are unflinchingly honest, and thus so should we all be.
Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, was another Commander in Chief hailed for being trustworthy. Gordon Leidner, in his 2009 book Abraham Lincoln: Quotes, Quips, and Speeches, uses documented testimonies of those who knew Lincoln—from his wife Mary Todd Lincoln to his fiercest political rival Stephen A. Douglas—to validate Lincoln’s life of honesty. Integrity characterized “Honest Abe” as a young store clerk in New Salem, Illinois, as well as Lincoln the head of state. Although he boldly signed an executive order proclaiming the emancipation of three million slaves, he was known more as a peacemaker and reconciler than a warrior and antagonizer. Facing a fractured and broken nation, Lincoln felt the people’s pain, acquiring a reputation as a praying president who sought God’s guidance to end the war and preserve the Union.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our solitary four-times-elected president and the only person to lead the country from a wheel chair, used his evening radio addresses, or Fireside Chats, to calm distraught and frightened Americans. While his best-known statement was “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he also encouraged the practice of selflessness and neighborliness. Surveying the millions of poor among the citizens of the land, Roosevelt asserted that “[t]he test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” Aware, moreover, that the world beyond America’s shores was being ravaged by hatred and war, the 32nd president advised his listeners that “[i]f civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world at peace.”
John F. Kennedy proposed the Civil Rights Act a few short months before his assassination in November 1963, thereby laying the foundation for freedoms that enabled the election of our first black president 45 years later. Kennedy motivated millions of young Americans, many of whom responded to his plan of serving others through a “Peace Corps” of friendship around the world, while even more were grasped by the inaugural vision of this young 35th president, whose challenging message was “Ask not what the country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
The 45th and current president, Donald Trump, likes to speak in superlatives about his accomplishments, but how does he rate on the moral quotient, compared for example with just these four American leaders?
Unlike Washington, about whom stories arose, albeit legendary, that drew upon the inspiration of his honesty, Trump has repeatedly lied to the American people. These lies are legendary, but not mythic. They have been meticulously detailed and documented by The New York Times. In a July 2017 article, the authors suggest that “[t]here is simply no precedent for an American president to spend so much time telling untruths. . . . No other president—of either party—has behaved as Trump is behaving. He is trying to create an atmosphere in which reality is irrelevant.”
Unlike Lincoln, who prayed for peace despite the inevitable outbreak of war one month into his presidency, Trump has engaged in a blustery escalation of warmongering and threats against Kim Jong-un and North Korea, promising “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” And, while Lincoln passed legislation granting freedom and opportunity to millions of slaves, Trump has repeatedly attempted to block immigrants and refugees, especially Mexicans and Muslims, from seeking a better life in our country.
Unlike FDR, who served as a pastoral advisor to an anxious and frightened populace, Trump has used his Twitter account to ridicule anyone who opposes him, while his public statements and behaviors have created chaos, fear, and turmoil across the nation. Rather than championing the rights of the poor by advocating unselfishness, he has surrounded himself with fellow billionaires and garnered lucrative benefits for himself and his family through his position as president. And, while Roosevelt supported the plurality of America and the larger world, believing in the value of diversity, Trump rose to prominence on the back of the birther lie, stereotyped Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, degraded women by bragging that men of power can sexually abuse them without consequence, and claimed that there are “many good people” among the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and KKK-members, who—like former Grand Wizard David Duke—want “to take our country back” and “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” Perhaps most ironically, Roosevelt—a crippled man in a chair—could very well have been one of the handicapped persons targeted by Trump’s bigoted “humor.”
Unlike Kennedy, who also came from family wealth yet modeled self-sacrifice and then established government programs to engage idealistic young people in serving the nation and world, Trump is narcissistic and apparently most invested in what the presidency can do for himself and driven by what others think of him. While JFK proposed the historic Civil Rights Act that “outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” Trump’s efforts to build the border wall, block Muslim immigrants from select Middle Eastern countries, and forbid the military service of transgender Americans are actions directly contrary to the principles codified in American law more than 50 years ago.
Now, sadly, Trump’s values that have been displayed at campaign rallies, in tweets, on television, and through press conferences have not brought forth our “better angels” but our worst demons. As Martha Raddatz, co-anchor of ABC’s This Week, explained in the August 20 telecast, “Moments of crisis have historically been an opportunity for a president to show strength, compassion, to heal divisions. . . . For the country at large, the main concern is that the president failed to clearly reject racism or to rally the nation in a moment of crisis.” Even some of Trump’s own party members are speaking of presidential failure. Tim Scott, Republican senator from South Carolina, called the president’s words in the aftermath of Charlottesville “indefensible,” adding that “what we want to see from our president is clarity and moral authority.”
President Trump has failed in moral leadership. His record in no way compares to that of so many of his predecessors. The office of “the leader of the free world,” “the most powerful person in the world,” is no place for a mere apprentice, but demands a skilled, experienced statesperson. Unless he has a change of heart, and a seismic change of direction, the American people may eventually have to give to Donald Trump his own most famous celebrity pronouncement, “You’re fired!”