Last Call to Greatness -- Before It's Too Late

Last Call to Greatness -- Before It's Too Late

By David M. Abshire - November 10, 2014

Are America’s greatest days behind us? Is the country still capable of producing, let alone rallying behind, the kind of transformational leaders that in the past called Americans to greatness? Given a political culture increasingly characterized by hyper-partisanship, gridlock and pettiness in the face of profound challenges, a number of thoughtful observers are starting to consider the once unthinkable idea that the nation has changed in ways that may make greatness unachievable.

In his recent book “The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President,” Aaron David Miller makes the counterintuitive argument that great expectations can overshadow even moderately good presidential achievements. An adviser to numerous presidents, Miller makes the case that greatness in presidents is an overrated virtue.

In an op-ed in The Washington Post, “Ending the Second Term Curse,” former Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers suggests the blame for our current political dysfunction may lie with the hubris and exhaustion that overtake presidents in their second terms. Tracing the history of the modern presidency thru two-term presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush, he notes that the signature achievements of those presidencies tended to occur during first terms, while the signature scandals and failures overwhelmingly accrued during second terms. Summers suggests as a possible solution the creation of single, six-year presidential terms.

I do not believe that one six-year presidential term is the answer to what so clearly ails our body politic, nor do I think America’s great leaders have been relegated to the history books. In more than half a century in Washington, D.C., I have witnessed firsthand great leaders, and even great presidents. In my last book, “A Call to Greatness,” I argue that the greatness that has manifested itself in our leaders and in our collective will at critical moments in American history still lies dormant within us. The problem is that this call has gone unanswered in the White House and in Congress for so long that many Americans have lost faith in our politics. That suggests a profound crisis of leadership.

Evidence of that crisis is all around us. President Obama’s poll numbers are underwater. Congress’ approval rating is much worse, languishing at the lowest levels since Gallup first started polling on the issue. Income inequality is at a record high in modern times, with the top 1 percent monopolizing an ever greater share of the nation’s wealth. By some measures, upward mobility in the United States now trails the more socialized economies of Europe. Critical infrastructure is crumbling, national debt continues to mount, and a limping economy has yet to gain enough momentum to escape the gravitational pull of the 2008 Great Recession. By almost any measure, America is in danger of running off the rails.

In the past, greatness in our leaders and our national character has manifested itself when the dangers have been greatest. With the country now at the precipice of crisis, facing an unavoidable choice between decline or renewal, we must summon the spirit and channel the lessons provided by our great leaders like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s, what sets the United States apart is not some quirk of geography, but rather the spirit of reform and reinvention.

“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation,” he wrote, “but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

In the past, America’s leaders showed the courage and wisdom to put aside petty politics when confronting serious threats to the nation. They reached out across the political aisle at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to unite in the face of a common challenge. In recent years this sense of unity in the face of adversity has dissipated. Too often, when a leader of any stripe shows the courage to speak an unpopular truth, he or she is slammed by the opposition and shunned by his or her own side.

Washington clearly needs help in breaking out of its current political myopia. That’s why I call on the president and Congress to create an independent, nonpartisan commission of experts, and to empower it to craft bipartisan policy options to address our most pressing challenges. I also call on the nation’s unequaled community of non-partisan, public-policy think tanks to lend their unqualified support to this strategic review of our national policy-making process. The goal should be the formulation of sound, common sense and sustainable policies that are ideologically neutral and able to win broad public backing.

Given the circumstances, such a grand commission will require bold, innovative leadership both on the part of government, and from outside established government circles. The primary task must be to abandon dysfunctional partisanship and draw into the discussion those former government officials and subject matter experts who have shown a proclivity for getting things done. Rhetorical bomb throwers, partisan talking heads and political posers need not apply. Our charge to the leaders of this commission should be simple: Set aside your own rivalries, engage the very best people from within your organizations and beyond, and chart a course together that puts American back on the path to greatness -- before it’s too late. 

David M. Abshire passed away on Oct. 31 at age 88. A native of Tennessee, he was a graduate of the United States Military Academy and was awarded a Bronze Star in Korea, where he was platoon leader. After the war, Abshire earned a PhD in history at Georgetown, and went on to a lifetime in public service, including stints as a presidential adviser, NATO ambassador, co-founder of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. The Alexandria Times, a newspaper in his adopted Northern Virginia hometown, titled its obituary “Goodbye to a Gentleman.”

David M. Abshire

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