Last Wednesday, I was an unwilling eyewitness to a dramatic political event and it made me wonder where we are headed as a nation. More on that in a moment. First, a little background.
There is no doubt that leadership matters. The study of human history provides evidence that empires - even entire civilizations - rise and fall on the ideas, virtues and skills of great leaders. From Mesopotamia to the European Continent, those who chronicled the triumphs and failures of great leaders in the Western world measured success based on military prowess and territory conquered. Herodotus detailed how the Persian Empire, built by Darius, eventually succumbed to Alexander the Great in the fifth century B.C. That vision of leadership began to change in what is now Israel.
Old Testament prophets described a Messiah - in Aramaic, a leader - a savior who would deliver the Jewish people from their travails. For more than two millennia, Christians have believed the Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth and that at the appointed time he will come again in triumph.
Unfortunately, in the modern era there have many other leaders who perceived that they had messianic qualities that only they could provide.
Napoleon, after the bloody French Revolution, described himself as “essential” to the future of France - and was appointed dictator. The aftermath was a disaster for his countrymen and much of Europe.
Adolf Hitler was elected by the German people and then given absolute power because he claimed only he could “preserve the Aryan race.” The result was a global conflagration that resulted in the death on more than 25 million.
More recently - from Idi Amin in Uganda, to Pol Pot in Cambodia, Kim Jong-il in Korea and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe - all have “led” their people to perdition after describing themselves as the only men capable of leading their populations through difficult times. Yet, all their people were ultimately worse off.
It is notable that until the 20th century, the American people managed to avoid selecting leaders who held messianic self-esteem. Neither George Washington nor Abraham Lincoln - arguably two of this nation’s greatest leaders through the toughest crises in our history - described themselves in such terms. In fact, the record of what they said and wrote is replete with humility.
Not until Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided in 1940 that our country needed his “seasoned leadership,” did any U.S. president even contemplate a third successive term in office. And while FDR rose to become a great wartime leader, there is also little doubt he amassed far more power in the office of chief executive than any of his predecessors. Roosevelt’s authority was so great that his successor, Harry Truman, the modest man from Missouri, saw fit to endorse a constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms.
Given America’s history of limiting executive power in government - if by no other means than term limits - it is interesting to note how much hope some people now vest in such office. And it’s not just the presidency.
New York City, where Fox News Channel is headquartered, has a public law limiting the mayor to a tenure of two terms. Despite this ordinance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, citing the current “economic crisis,” insists he should be re-elected for a third stint in office. Though he was once a believer in term-limits he now claims that, “Given the enormous challenges we face, I don’t want to walk away from a city I feel I can help lead through these tough times.”
That’s messianic thinking. But apparently the Big Apple isn’t the only place it’s happening.
During Wednesday afternoon’s “rush hour” I was making my way home on the “Dulles Greenway” when a phalanx of police motorcycles and cruisers stopped all traffic and ordered us to pull off the highway onto the shoulders. Over a loudspeaker we were told to stay put until the Obama campaign convoy passed, on the way to a rally in Leesburg, Va.
Instantly, hundreds of people were out of their cars. Directly in front of me a group of supporters - evident by their bumper-stickers - jumped out with cameras, cell phones and banners. But then they began chanting: “The Messiah! He’s Coming! Obama is coming!” The shouting intensified as the candidate and his entourage - motorcycles, police cars, black Secret Service Suburbans and buses - roared past us.