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..." 



[This is the first of two articles quoting Forrest McDonald and Bill Moyers on the Presidency.]

A World of Ideas, moderated by Bill Moyers, is one of the books I treasure.  It's a series of TV conversations with original thinkers.  The book is a storehouse of wisdom about public life.  Doubleday published it in 1989, but the ideas are still relevant today.  For example, here is the conversation between Bill Moyers and Forrest McDonald, history professor at the University of Alabama.  In reading this, bear in mind that Bill Moyers was press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson, and his remarks about Johnson are from personal experience.

MOYERS:  You have said that the presidency requires two functions so different from one another that the ability to perform them both is rarely to be found in a single person.  What are those two functions?

McDONALD:  One is the function of the king, the head of state, the father of his people, which involves ceremony and ritual.  The other is the chief executive officer.  The one requires presence and bearing – it's show biz.  The other requires attention to detail, hard-nosed practical sense, and the twisting of arms.

MOYERS:  One is ruling, and one is governing.

Bill MoyersMcDONALD:  Yes, and there's an irony here.  The British had worked out their system of handling the executive in the eighteenth century by dividing the functions.  The crown became a symbolic office. They were able to do this because they imported German kings who didn't speak the language and were not much interested in governing as long as they got the goodies.  The actual governing part, the executive part, was handled by a prime ministership and a ministerial system. 

Ironically, just as the British were opting to have a viable kind of executive, we opted to go the historical way, demanding that the two be the same person.  Now Washington could do both, and Jefferson could do both. But the number of people who could do both has been extremely rare.  For example, Jack Kennedy did the first magnificently.

MOYERS:  He performed the ceremony and was the showman.

McDONALD:  Camelot and all that kind of stuff.  But he didn't get diddley done in Washington in the two and a half years he was there.  Lyndon Johnson was more able at running the government of the United States probably than anybody who ever held the office.  But he was a turkey when it came to the monarchical aspect of the presidency.

MOYERS:  I was surprised to read your claim that the ceremonial function of the presidency has often been more important than the actual responsibility of governing the country.

McDONALD:  Let me give you a couple of examples, one contemporary, one historical.  When Jimmy Carter was President, whatever Jimmy Carter's virtues or lack thereof, he came across as a wimp, and the country was ashamed of itself.  We felt weak.  Ronald Reagan came in and made the country feel good about itself. We were no longer ashamed of ourselves, no longer afraid to take chances.

Forrest McDonaldBut to go back historically, Washington really embodied the power of the ceremonial function of the presidency. Everybody compared him to a king – "He moves with more dignity and grace than royal George," and so on. Abigail Adams just gushed moon-eyed when she saw him and said, "I was not told the half."

Washington worked very hard to strike a balance between dignified aloofness and excessive accessibility to the people. As for his predecessors, the presidents of the Continental Congress, people regarded the President's house as open at all times, and they just wandered in off the streets and expected to be fed. They tried to mob Washington at first. And Washington was greatly concerned. He sought very learned opinions from Hamilton and Madison and John Jay and various other people – "How do I strike appropriate balance? What is suitable for a republic?" And he hit it. He understood what was important.

MOYERS:  You think he was doing this by design and that it wasn't just the extension of his character, his nature?

McDONALD:  It's both.  By this time he was so accustomed to playing the role of father of his country –

MOYERS:  -- even before he was President?

McDONALD:  Oh, yes.  Bill, you wouldn't believe.  I sometimes send graduate students to wallow in the newspapers of the 1780's. The one thing they're overwhelmed by is the adulation for George Washington. He knew he had to live up to his role. That made it doubly important, once he became President, to play the part and to be the appropriate kind of ruler for a republic.

George WashingtonMOYERS:  You've gone on to say, though, that no small number of gifted men have failed as president because they ignored or misunderstood the purely ceremonial part of the office.

McDONALD:  I submit – William Howard Taft. A disaster. I submit Richard Milhous Nixon. An extremely able man, but a disaster. I submit Lyndon Johnson. What was it like at the end? For all Johnson's abilities, it was a calamity.

MOYERS:  But in the case both of Johnson and Nixon, wouldn't you say that it was their policies that proved their undoing, not their failure at ceremony and ritual?

McDONALD:    It was absolutely not their policies. In the 1968 New Hampshire primary, Johnson was shocked that he was being rejected. Somebody did the 1968 equivalent of exit polls and asked, "Is it because of this policy or this policy?" and so on. Three-quarters of the New Hampshire people polled couldn't even name a policy of Lyndon Johnson's. They just didn't like the man.

You may remember an article about Johnson that Richard Rovere wrote for The New Yorker. He compared Johnson with Kennedy, and the bottom line was that Johnson got things done that Kennedy dreamed about getting done, but never could have. "The man is infinitely more able than Kennedy," he said. "But why don't I like him? I don't like him because he's a cornball. I don't like his style."

MOYERS:  I remember the story of the time Lyndon Johnson was very morose. The polls had shown him down. He looked across the table to his unofficial adviser, Dean Acheson, and said, "Dean, I just don't understand why people don't like me." And Dean Acheson, who had the courage of candor or the candor of courage, said, "Well, Mr. President, it may be because you're not a very likable man." Doesn't that mean that people of a certain kind will not be able to perform the ceremonial office of the presidency, no matter what their gifts are?

Thomas JeffersonMcDONALD:  Absolutely. It goes back to Washington and Jefferson. Look at the difference between those two giants and the pip-squeak in between, John Adams – who wasn't a pip squeak, but an enormously fat man. He was an intellectual giant, but still, as President, he was zilch, because he didn't have any kind of presence.

MOYERS:  Why is it important for a country to have a ceremonial leader who can perform this role?

McDONALD:  I think it's programmed into human character. It's a basic, deep-seated, genetically-rooted human craving to have a leader with whom one can identify and for whom one is willing to fight and die, to have a leader who symbolizes and personifies the aspirations, hopes, and values of the country.

MOYERS:  Of course, George Washington set the precedent. As the first President, he became the symbol of the country.

McDONALD:  When Jefferson came in, he objected to the nature of the presidency as it had been established under Washington, where something resembling a ministerial system had been worked out. Now you look at the Constitution, and it looks as if you can't get there from here. But Alexander Hamilton was doing the executive part.  He thought of himself as the prime minister. And Washington was head of state, although Washington did take an active hand in administration as well. But it really was a dividing of the functions.

The Jeffersonians attacked this as imitation monarchy and vowed to restore the Constitution. So when Jefferson became President, he delivered his inaugural address to Congress, but he never appeared before Congress again. That established a precedent which was not broken until Woodrow Wilson, by the way. Presidents never entered the Congress because that was a monarchical thing to do. It was a ritual that had been worked out in Great Britain. Jefferson and the Jeffersonians insisted on the separation of powers.

Jefferson was also a man of infinite personal charm. He was shy of large groups, but around a dinner table, he was magnificent. He gave dinner parties, and when the Congress was in session, he routinely invited everybody to dinner. Magnificent wines, great conversation, great food – he had a French chef.

John F. KennedyHe affected homespun simplicity. He wore frayed slippers and jackets like a country squire at home. But Gouverneur Morris said of him that he was a concealed voluptuary. Now at these dinners, they talked about everything – art, architecture, Greek poetry, and so on. But they never talked politics, they never talked policy. Somehow, though, when the people went away, they knew they were going to vote for whatever it was the President was for. Jefferson manipulated them. He ran Congress more effectively than anybody until Lyndon Johnson. But he continued to maintain the principle of the separation of powers.

MOYERS:  But he more or less disdained the ceremonial function, didn't he?

McDONALD:  He democratized this monarchical function. He was a man of great intellect and indescribable learning, but nonetheless, he was a man of the people, and he made the office be an office of the people. He entertained the British minister in the same way he entertained the senators and the congressmen.

MOYERS:  He kept his office open to all people at almost all times. He held no court for foreign visitors, and he told people not to celebrate his birthday, whereas Washington's birthday was a national holiday, even then.  Was this deliberate on his part?

McDONALD:  Oh, yes, quite deliberate. It wasn't a simple affectation of simplicity. It came easily to him. It was a public character that he could play. But he really did set out to humanize and democratize the office of the President. A generation later, it got thoroughly democratized with Andrew Jackson. He was truly a man of the people. Gar, blimey, the inaugural! There was such a mob in the White House, they broke all the china, they stole all the silver, and they got so drunk, they began tearing up the building. Jackson had to be carried out to avoid being crushed to death.

Lyndon JohnsonMOYERS:  What does it say to you that this office is so elastic, so malleable that any incumbent can make it over in his image?

McDONALD:  No, that's not it at all. Every presidency is different from every other presidency, this is true. But it takes a genuine master to be able to make it something substantively different.

. . . Our founding fathers, believe me, thought of the demos, the people, as a great beast.  They believed in "the public" – but [to them] "the public" was a very limited concept. We would call it an elite. Who was a member of the public? White, free, adult males who had shown that they could bear the responsibilities of citizenship, which meant they had character and information as well. "The people" included everybody. "The public" only included the group defined, and this is the group to whom the early presidents appealed. When you start appealing to everybody you get the kind of presidents we've had lately.

MOYERS:  But it was inevitable, wasn't it, that we had to enlarge the meaning of "the public" to include those who had been excluded, the slaves and women? We can't begin by saying, "All men are created equal," and speak about virtue and justice without eventually changing our definition of "men" to include women and non-whites.

McDONALD:  Oh, it's true. It's a Pandora's box. Once it starts, there's no logical stopping place. But as a Scottish philosopher in the eighteenth century said, "Democracy cannot last long.  It's not a durable form of government.  It can last only until the people discover that they can reward themselves from the public treasury.  And then they become dependents of the public treasury, and they're tyrannized over."    [A quote from David Hume?]


Isn't that a scary quote?  But note:  The United States is not only the oldest constitutional republic, we have also continued our form of government intact for longer than almost all nations presently existing.  Yet, in the light of present realities, Hume's comment is a frightening prophecy.


Good poetry puts words to our unexpressed feelings.  Good historical analysis puts words to our unexpressed thoughts.  McDonald's view of the presidency says in detail what I have suspected for decades.


Quote:  At a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners in April, 1962, President John F. Kennedy remarked, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined here alone."


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


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