Our leadership void
Wisdom seems a precious and rare commodity these days. And yet, we have a heritage, to paraphrase the late William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review, to call upon. Even, as it happens, in newspaper columns.
The year was 1976. An incumbent congressman in Utah had “committed political suicide,” as one Salt Lake City attorney described it, having approached two women with the hopes of soliciting sex from them. Turned out they were police officers with recording devices.
Buckley’s commentary on the Mormon response — expecting the congressman to step down — should prod the consciences of religious Trump surrogates of all denominations and creeds.
“The Mormons, like other Christians, believe in forgiving a sinner,” Buckley wrote. “But their experience in forgiveness has not caused them to lose the very idea of wrongdoing.”
Speaking of another politician brought low by a sex scandal, Buckley recounted how “In what we choose to call the more cosmopolitan centers of America, everyone rushed forward to say ... that (the disgraced politician’s) ‘private’ life was entirely his own affair, that it mattered only whether he was using the taxpayers’ money to appease his lubricity.”
“The Mormon idea is that the political leader is also something of a moral leader,” Buckley went on to say. “That praiseworthy men should be elected to positions of power.” But this wasn’t — isn’t — an idea exclusive to Mormons. The notion that leaders should be paragons of their society’s virtues and beliefs goes back to ancient times.
So what about a “private life”? Is there really such a thing for integrated persons in a healthy society? As Buckley put it: “It is one thing to say that no one should be permitted to peer into a man’s home. Another to say that a public should be unconcerned as to what in fact goes on there.”
The word “privacy” has been butchered by ideologues in all branches of government, used as a bludgeon to assert a new morality of tolerance that is, in fact, a grave and tyrannical degradation of humanity.
Recent days have been a flurry of shameful accusations and, of course, indignant tweets — made possible by the archives of “Access Hollywood” and Howard Stern. The furor may have been an opportunity for the Republican party to do what it should have done all along and repudiated Donald Trump both as a candidate and as a man. But that also begs the question: Who are we as Americans, and who do we want to be? Hillary Clinton sure doesn’t reflect the answers to those questions.
Speaking of Mormons, the other day I saw in my office a copy of a book from 10 or so years back about Mitt Romney and the prospect of “A Mormon in the White House.” If only.
Buckley ended his column: “We may have had no business knowing” the sordid details of a public official mired in a private scandal. “But if it transpires that (it) affronts the public ideal, then surely there is a Christian reconciliation: Affirm the ideal by dismissing the (official). And then forgive the (official) his transgression — while insisting that that is what it was.”
I’m not sure America is ever going to be great again unless Americans want to be decent again. How do we get there? Restoring a sense of politics as a noble calling and service, rather than a reality show that votes anyone with a whiff of the establishment — which in some cases means experience and learned wisdom — off the island would help. But that’s going to require some humility and admission of sins to come. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of doubling down to get to a victory that may only lead to another cycle of denial and distraction, as our better angels are sacrificed for a dangerous power play by a strongman.