Why Leadings?

Not to lead, but to be led            -- by the Holy Spirit.

See Leader, Servant, or Slave? in the section below, "Walking the Walk".

Jack in Denali National Park, 2012.

God's Wrath

Why was Sodom destroyed? Ezekiel tells us in chapter 16, verse 49: "This was the sin of your sister, Sodom: Pride, full-ness of bread, and abundance of idleness. Neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy."

That's also why Jerusalem was destroyed.

And now, with greed as our national virtue, what hope is there for the United States of America? We are afflicted by imperialistic pride, obesity, and entertainment addiction, and we are all called to do our part to "strengthen the hand of the poor and needy".

"Strengthen the hand" is the King James wording. Modern translations say "help the poor and needy." And there's a world of difference between the two. Helping the poor = as little as throwing some cash in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas time. That's charity. It's doing for, not doing with.

My Grandmother was right about charity. On a below-zero day, she went out on the back porch with a skillet to throw hot grease on the back-yard snow. She shivered as she re-entered the kitchen and said, "Wooooh, colder than charity."

Strengthening the hand is much different. We get personally involved with another person who needs help, and we work with her or him to get the needed help. That's risky. You're vulnerable. It takes prayer, time and patience. You need knowledge and wisdom from the LORD. There are great rewards, however. You get a brother or sister.

Strengthening the hand is great work for our churches -- which we ignore far more often than we perform. Why? Because we're afflicted with the Ameri-can curse of individualism. Christians are to be a tribe -- a tribe that takes care of each other. In Galatians 6:16, Paul calls us "the Israel of God" -- the new 13th tribe.

Jesus said, "The poor you shall always have with you." He didn't mean that as a curse -- the notion that the poor are an inevi-table nuisance and expense, to be hidden in the slums. Rather, He was saying, "You shall always be among the poor."

When you strengthen hands, you fulfill Deuteronomy 15:4-5: "However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God . . ." It's a glorious responsibility and promise.

And how do prosperous Americans fulfill that promise? Generally, by making sure they have no contact with people who are poor -- and we have been that way from our beginnings in the 17th century. Early villages in Massachusetts solved the problem by out-lawing poor people. Today, we deal with the same problem by confining the poor in urban reservations, our slums.

As the Supreme Court Bailiff says at the beginning of each session, "God save the United States of America..." 

Monday
Oct172011

OUR DYSFUNCTIONAL PRESIDENCY 2

Part two of the Bill Moyers interview with Historian Forrest McDonald.  For part one, go on the right and click on "Politics and Government / Our Disfunctional Presidency"

In part one, Forrest McDonald made the point that our presidents have two jobs – head of state, which is show biz, and head of government, which is management.  It's nearly impossible to do both well.

MOYERS:  So the first presidents sought the advice and approval of men acknowledged to be wise and just, but later, presidents began to respond to whatever the people wanted at a particular moment, requiring the talents of a flatterer.

McDONALD:  Essentially. Of course, today the government is a hopeless mess. Now I don't want to give a false impression here. This is still the freest country in the history of the world, and it is a marvelous privilege to be a citizen of this country. I count my blessings all the time. But that doesn't mean I can't back off and be critical of it in an abstract historical way.

MOYERS:  But as with presidents today, something happened to both Washington and Jefferson in their second term.

Richard M. NixonMcDONALD:  Yes, the lame duck syndrome. You're a lame duck from the moment that you're reelected for your second term. You're a lame duck because of the structure of American politics and government. In his first term in office, the President deals with domestic affairs because he can work with Congress. They need him to carry them when he's up for reelection. In his second term in office, they don't need him any more, and he doesn't need them.

MOYERS:  Because he's finishing, and they've got to be reelected.

McDONALD:  Right, so he's a lame duck from the word go in his second term. What that means is that presidents begin to move in the territory of foreign affairs, because there they have a much more nearly unobstructed hand. They always get reelected by a bigger majority than the first time, and they count that as a great popular approval of everything they've done. It's now debasing to have to deal with the Congress. It's much more fun to go adventuring overseas. Almost every two-term President has done so. That's when you get wars and international troubles.

Another thing that happens is that around the sixth or seventh year, Congress turns the dogs on you. They go after you, yapping at your heels. A lot of them are running again, either for reelection or for the presidency, and you become fair game. At this point, the President tends to turn inside and whimper. Washington's cabinet meetings in the last year were painful because he would come in and swear for an hour at the accusations that had been made in the public press about him. The first draft of Washington's Farewell Address began, "Fellow citizens, you may have read of some horrible things that have been said about me, the calumnies and lies, and I could answer these, but it becomes my dignity just to pay no attention to them." The rest of the draft was a defense of himself against the charges. He sent it to Hamilton to be polished, and Hamilton fixed it into the classic it became.

Lyndon Baines JohnsonJefferson used to say, if you had to abolish either government or the press, we'd be a lot better off abolishing government. You've got to have a free press. He felt this way until he got into his second term, by which time he was ready to institute what he called "a few wholesome prosecutions" – to revitalize the doctrine of seditious libel, for example, because the press was attacking him the same way it had attacked Washington. Jefferson had migraine headaches. He would get so depressed at the viciousness of the attacks on him that he would literally lock himself up in a darkened room for days on end and not see anybody.

MOYERS:  When I read that description in your book, I thought about Lyndon Johnson suffering after his reelection from the same syndrome, lying in bed early in the morning in a darkened room with the covers pulled almost up to his chin, and the window shades pulled down, reluctant to get out of bed. He would say, "I can't read the Washington Post this morning," or "I read the bulldog edition last night, and it kept me awake all night." He suffered deep depression because of what was written about him."

McDONALD:  It began at the beginning with Washington.

MOYERS:  We don't have this picture of Washington today. We think of him as the father of the nation, not as a man vilified by the popular press of the day. But you have said that both Washington and Jefferson could regard opposition and criticism as treason.

McDONALD:  That's another thing that happens in a second term. Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal are nothing new – it happens again and again and again. You begin to think of yourself as being above the law because you know that what you're doing is in the public interest, don't you? And the people know it, don't they, because they reelected you by a huge margin, didn't they? And those scumbags in Congress, why should you pay any attention to them? It's not something new that happened with Nixon or Johnson or Reagan [or Clinton or George W. Bush]. It's been programmed into the presidency from the start.

Ronald ReaganMOYERS:  What did you mean when you said, "The burden of presidential power over a period of two terms has a psychic cost to the office-holder greater than any reasonable man can be expected to bear."

McDONALD:  The psychic cost wouldn't be nearly so high if the prospect of reelection were there. Being brought into a war against the press and against the Congress, which is almost inevitable under the present two-term arrangement, wouldn't happen if the President were eligible for reelection. Just the possibility that you could [run] would keep you responsible, and it would also keep them off your back.

MOYERS:  So are you advocating that we should have an open-ended presidency

McDONALD:  Yes. We really ought to understand this second-term lame duck syndrome and what it creates. A lot of people have looked upon Ronald Reagan's troubles over the last eighteen months as unique to Ronald Reagan. But it is not unique to Ronald Reagan, it is inherent in the office.

MOYERS:  Should we elect two presidents—one to be the national toastmaster and the other to be the prime minister, the man who runs the affairs of state?

McDONALD:  It would be wonderful if you could figure out a way to package it to make it seem American and attractive, the way De Gaulle overhauled the French Constitution.

MOYERS:  But we're not that kind of people. We're not going to make that radical a change in our Constitution.

Bill ClintonMcDONALD:  That's right. We're going to go right on insisting that presidents play impossible roles, and we're going to go right on having a replay of 1987 and 1988 and Watergate and Iran-Contra again and again and again.

MOYERS:  We're been muddling through the presidency for two hundred years now. Haven't we always been ambivalent about it? Even the Constitutional Convention finally gave up.  They couldn't arrive at a neat definition of the office, so they left it to posterity to fill out.

McDONALD:  Yes, but the reason they could leave it to posterity with some confidence is that posterity was sitting right there in the chair in Philadelphia with them.

MOYERS:  George Washington.

McDONALD:  They knew he would be the President, and they knew he could be trusted. Knowing that, they could leave it as a blank check, to be worked out with the precedence of the early presidents.

MOYERS:  What did they fear in the presidency then?

McDONALD:  Tyranny. The Continental Congress had no executive arm, and they went along for a dozen years or so, convinced that executive power is the root of all evil. By '87, the farsighted among them began to realize that you can't run a government without an executive arm. But they were scared of it. At least a quarter of the delegates to the convention wanted a two-, three-, four- or five-man executive because they were afraid.

George W. BushThere was more time spent on the construction of the executive branch than upon the other two branches combined. The only reason they were willing to have a one-man executive was because Washington was there. They all knew it. The whole country knew it. The only reason the country was willing to ratify a constitution with a President in it was because they knew that Washington would be the first President.

MOYERS:  Do you think they would be surprised today at what's happened to the office?

McDONALD:  Horrified.  They wouldn't be surprised though. They would say, "Yep."

MOYERS:  Let me give you a Cassandra's lament, a summary of what one can hear around the country today. There is a widespread sense that our system is overloaded and spinning out of control, riddled with corruption, and gridlocked between a swollen bureaucracy and rampant individualism, as we descend into the permanent status of a second-rate economic power. We're living beyond our means. Congress is for sale to the highest bidder from one election to the next, the Pentagon belongs to the fixers, the President's out to lunch, and the media are drowning us in violence, nonsense, and trivia. [Remember: This interview happened in the late 1980's.] Now from the long perspective of the historian, how does that state of affairs strike you?

McDONALD:  My first reaction would be to break it into three components.  One is the social or public component.  We tend to conflate government and society in this country, but they're two different things. Two, on the economic side, living beyond our means . . . doesn't bother me in the slightest.  If we buy fifty billion dollars more of Japanese goods than they buy from us, we benefit, and they're the ones in trouble.  They get pieces of paper, and we get Toyotas. . .

Forrest McDonaldBut the third component, the government, is in bad shape – not simply because of a decline in moral fiber or the incompetence of particular politicians.  It's not a personal thing; it's institutional.  The government of the United States was designed to be incompetent because the founding fathers didn't trust power. The way they rigged the institutions to express this distrust of power is based upon the assumption that men in public life are ruled by their passions, their love of power and money.  So, what you do, in the words of James Madison, is to make ambition check ambition and interest check interest.  You rig the government in such a way that all parts of it are working at cross-purposes.  Hopefully, on the average, it won't be able to do very much, and therefore, it won't cause much mischief.

MOYERS:  But there's also a paralysis that comes from the people themselves, isn't there?  People distrust power in this country and always have.  You've described the American people then and now as materialistic, worldly, and vulgar. Those are your terms. So you've got a conflict in that people don't trust power, but do want what a responsive government provides.

McDONALD:  Yes, but a great majority of the American people are decent, law-abiding, reasonably intelligent, reasonably hard-working, honorable, and interested in public affairs.  They have what used to be called public virtue. But they're frustrated because, as the old saying goes, the wheel that squeaks gets the grease.  And there are organized special interest groups who scream loudly, and they are the ones who are getting the real goodies from government.

MOYERS:  You've said through the years that the life-giving principle, not just of our republic but of any republic, is the idea of public virtue.  What do you mean by that?

McDONALD:  I mean what was historically meant, and it goes way back to ancient Greece and Rome.  It meant simply a devotion to the well-being of the republic.

Bill MoyersMOYERS:  -- the public interest, over and above individualism.  Didn't it also involve the idea that the highest self-realization came through participation in the public enterprise?

McDONALD:  Yes, man attains his greatest fulfillment through participation in the republic. [Today, we would say "people attain their . . ."]

MOYERS:  What does it say to you that the most quoted source by the founders was the Bible, and not only the Bible, but the Book of Deuteronomy?

McDONALD:  The Book of Deuteronomy is a lawgiver. There's where the Mosaic Code is set forth. The founders believed in the rule of law, and they understood that you can't have freedom without law.

MOYERS:  So they wrote the Constitution to put everyone under the law, including the government.

McDONALD:  To put the government, particularly, under the law. There's a lovely quotation from a great patriot named John Dickinson to this effect – that the Constitution is written in simple language so that as long as the people have wisdom, they can understand it, and as long as they have virtue, they will insist that it be obeyed.

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Purpose of this blog is to compile a book for my grandchildren to read in 25 years.

Copyright © 2011 by Jack Towe

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