Monday, February 17, 2014

Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Ike and Lessons in Leadership

The word 'revolution' would bring to most the memories of either the French revolution or the Bolshevik revolution. To a few others there would be nostalgia of the Cuban revolution or the many eddies of revolutions in South America led by Che Guevara or Simon Bolivar. To a very few the word revolution would include the 'Bolivarian revolution' of Hugo Chavez. Lenin, Mao, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Simon Bolivar are considered revolutionaries in popular opinion. Yet none of their revolutions, including the French one, yielded a liberal democracy with individual rights and none yielded a democracy much less a prosperous one. The Indian independence, besides the American revolution, stands a glorious exception to that hall of shame.

Why do we look at Lenin as revolutionary and not George Washington? Why is Napoleon etched in romantic ideas of revolution and not Washington or Jefferson? Speak of Jefferson's 'Declaration of independence' and I'd hear, in a moment, the words 'hypocrisy' and 'slavery' yet we glorify Lenin, Napoloeon and Che Guevara whose hypocrisies cost lives in the millions and continue to do so.

Jawaharlal Nehru writing to his daughter, from prison, brushes aside the American revolution without much thought and he even ridicules the hallowed words of the Declaration, "all men are created equal" for naivety since not all created equal and that there are differences in intelligence, bodily strength etc. Then Nehru spends chapter after chapter extolling the French Revolution and later the Bolshevik Revolution. That trend persists in India till today. Indians when they look beyond native leaders look to Moscow for inspiration.

Cincinnatus, it is said, was called to lead Rome against an invading army, while he was farming. He was made dictator of Rome. He is remembered today for relinquishing his powers after winning the war. Unheard of in that era. America later commemorated him by naming a city, Cincinnati.

George Washington won the revolutionary war, laid down his arms, relinquished control and went to his home atop Mt.Vernon. Called back to preside over the constitutional convention he presides over it with saintly detachment as the framers wrangle endlessly over a simple question: "how do we ensure, constitutionally, that the President will never have so much power as to become a monarch". The framers, simple men, then devised a genius solution of 'checks and balances'. Any man in Washington's place would've tried to influence the powers allocated to the office they know that might, eventually, come to them. Having become President Washington tried to be a one term president and then remained in office, just one more term, to nurture a nascent republic. Washington's 'farewell address', remains 200 years later, a document to study by anyone who not only leaves office but is going to take one. To see another man unsullied by power or willing to relinquish it I'd have to travel 150 years to see Gandhi.

Mount Rushmore: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln (from L to R. Source Wikipedia)
Washington begins his 'farewell address' with the words 'friends and  fellow citizens'. Leaders and rulers in 1792, even today, don't speak like that. Less than a decade later Napoleon, the son of revolution, declared himself Emperor. The transition of power to John Adams and then Thomas Jefferson proceeded peacefully, a miracle in the early 19th century.

Lincoln at Gettysburg coined the immortal words, "a government of the people, for the people, by the people". Fully aware that the Republic could still be torn apart and well aware that he could still lose the war Lincoln reaches out in deep and sincere humility. "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here but it can never forget what they did here". Lincoln with his land grants lay the seed for one aspect of American supremacy that'll remain unchallenged for another two centuries: American Universities. China may surpass US GDP but never its per-capita or have a Harvard in Beijing. There will never be an MIT or Stanford in Shanghai or Delhi.

Thomas Jefferson was 32 when he wrote the words that would define America for centuries to come. 'Pursuit of happiness'. He would agonize over religious freedom, individual liberty and education. His  constitution for Virginia would later inspire the US constitution's bill of rights. Writing what his epitaph would say Jefferson would refer to himself as 'author of declaration of independence','statute of Virginia for religious freedom' and finally 'father of the University of Virginia'. No mention of the fact that he was President of US or Ambassador or Vice President or Secretary of state.

I came to US in 1998 and as much as I loved this country I looked their admiration of some US Presidents as just jingoism. When Time Magazine in a centennial issue included Teddy Roosevelt I chuckled "what did he do beside lending his name to a toy bear". By ending the Russo-Japanese war Teddy Roosevelt earned a Nobel peace prize thus becoming the first US President to do so. He created the Panama Canal, laid the groundwork for America's famous national parks amongst many others. There is a reason America honored him by including him along side Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln by carving his visage on Mount Rushmore.

The made-for-TV movie 'Ike:Countdown to D-Day' has a pivotal opening scene with Eisenhower pressing Churchill to declare him 'Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary force". Churchill demurs and says "you are asking for power that not even Caesar and Alexander had". Exactly. And Ike wields that power carefully later relinquishing it voluntarily. No general in history ever commanded such a vast and successful army only to relinquish his power answering to Harry Truman, born to a farmer and livestock trader. Ike had earlier benched legendary general Patton for the offense of slapping a soldier. The Red Army would've rewarded Patton. Patton was asked to apologize to not just the soldier but to the entire platoon. Ike would again rap Patton for claiming that when the war was over the Anglo-Saxons would rule. When a top ranking General rats out, intemperately, about the upcoming D-Day landing at Normandy Ike demotes and sends him back home. The general pleads "am I not in the inner circle". Ike expresses disgust and reminds him of the thousands that are about to die. Ike would agonize over the expected casualties.

On this day when America celebrates "Presidents Day" in memory of Washington and Lincoln I invite all to learn about these leaders who created the freest country and most prosperous. Thank you Sirs. And so may we add a 'Thank you Madam'. 

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