Chapter 17 – Presidential Leadership
When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.
If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”
(Translated by Stephen Mitchell, 1988)
Welcome to Tao Te Ching Tuesday. This week I am writing shortly after listening to President Obama’s talk on the tragic use of chemical weapons in Syria and the atrocities of dictator Bashir “Basher Al” al Assad. That, combined with Lao Tzu’s observations in Chapter 17 led me to consider what kind of presidential leadership we have and have had in this country.
My first thought was that we can never have the best leader, we can never be governed by a Master, because our political system is one in which the president and other elected officials feel they must always stay in the public eye in order to be re-elected. We are all too aware of their existence. Therefore, we must settle for second, third or fourth best. Is our chief executive/commander in chief loved or feared or despised?
More important, I think, is Lao Tzu’s observation that “if you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.” The corollary is that when the people don’t trust their leader, that leader becomes untrustworthy. President Obama’s difficulty in convincing the American people that some military action against Syria is necessary or justified is that his predecessors have shown they could not be trusted.
We all remember how George W. Bush lied to us about the weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to be in Iraq, leading to a military involvement in that country and Afghanistan for more than a decade.
Those of us who are a little older recall Lyndon Johnson’s lies about a supposed attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin in order to step up our involvement in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, resulting in the deaths of nearly 60,000 Americans, nearly half a million members of the Vietnamese military (on one side or the other) and more than half a million civilians.
Many who are familiar with history wonder if the McKinley administration was truthful when it claimed that a Spanish mine had sunk the U.S.S. Maine in Havana’s harbor, triggering the Spanish American War.
Unfortunately, the majority of the American people believe that when considering politicians – which those who should be leading the country have become – it is best to follow the rule that you can tell if they are lying when their lips are moving. This situation has come about because the elected leaders do not trust those who elected them. National security supposedly requires that the important information be classified and kept from public view; it requires that the government spy on its own citizens. There is distrust on all sides.
And our leaders are right not to trust us. Being one with the Tao, they recognize that people do become untrustworthy when those in power do not trust them. I imagine the National Security Council reads and meditates upon those lines from this chapter before each meeting.
An interesting coincidence – or perhaps synchronism, I don’t want to say “serendipity” – is that last Sunday at mass our priest talked about peace and said that our country can’t be “the world’s policeman.” He said that to bring peace we need to end hatred – not add the hatred that would result from any military action. Tonight President Obama said that we don’t want to be the “policeman of the world.” Nearly 50 years ago, Phil Ochs recorded a song called “Cops of the World” and he was (perhaps rightly (or leftly?)) derided as a pinko commie peacenik. Phil is no longer with us, but it seems that the establishment may finally be catching on to what he was trying to say.
A few years ago I was participating in the Governor’s Cup 10k race in Denver. Around the 4-mile mark I passed another runner and noticed the back of his tee shirt, which read: “I must hurry to catch them . . . I am their leader.” Maybe one day all leaders will wear such a shirt. May the Tao be with them.
P.S. The situation in Syria is complex. I have my own thoughts about the kinds of actions that may be appropriate, but I am not discussing those here.