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.


  1. May the Tao be with them.

    Love it. What a great post, Louis. I often think about our own government as I study this text and feel sad that we are so off base. I loved what you said about never being able to have a president that is not concerned with how he looks because that is what creates the vote to keep him in there. I am not sure if I agree with that for an active president. If a president is active, they should be able to do things in full integrity without concern for re-election because this integrity will win the hearts of their people. Faith, Louis! FAITH! 😉

    • Amy, you are certainly correct, that one of the reasons for presidential term limits is to take the president away from politics and let him lead the nation. I owe much of my political knowledge to reading the great philosopher Yogi Berra, who said something like: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”

      The only public office I have ever held was as a member of a school board. Candidates were not permitted to indicate any political party affiliation for that position. It might be better if all elections were that way. If presidents and senators and representatives could not be Democrats or Republicans or Libertarians or whatever, maybe they would focus more on leading (I originally typed “leaving” – a Freudian slip, I guess) the country and serving their constituents. Of course, just because the current president finds himself engaged in extreme partisan politics – and the idiots who make up at least part of the Republican contingent in the House are willing to try to shut the government down for political purposes – doesn’t mean it has to be that way. I will take your advice and have faith that things will change.

  2. Politics. What a world, what a world. I echo the sentiment that term limits are good, and yes, in the final term a President can become focused on leadership rather than political agendas – but I think the basic wisdom in term limits is about peaceful regime change in response to the principle voiced by Lord Acton that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Even if there’s a long line of power-corrupted idiots waiting in the wings for the next round, it takes them awhile to get up to speed and become agile enough to run in fast company.

    I personally regard with sadness the corrosive elements of power which have come to bear – as they always do – on the Obama presidency. I find it disturbing but not unexpected that a decent, moral humanist like President Obama could come to such grief and frustration. I see his efforts to make us a noble nation, compassionate to all our citizens and willing to stand against what is base and evil in the world. I see that essential goodness thwarted and twisted by the corruptions of our political system and its subjugation to special interests.

    It is cause for a certain measure of despair that while the people could embrace a leader of hope and positive change, many are instead brainwashed and co-opted by power-corrupted political interests and led down a path which enriches the morally bankrupt, bankrupts the morally rich, and destroys the faith and hope of the people. But then again, the people have given away their hope and faith themselves, haven’t they?

    And yet I too have faith. I agree with both of you, Louis and Amy. In some places in the world practice abandons theory because it is subverted by things which endeavor to take our faith away. Yet faith is ours, it can’t be taken away without our consent. Nor can we be governed by co-opted or corrupt things without our consent.

    I’ve always figured the seat of true government is what we know. Enough said.

    • Bob, I think you were quite perceptive in referring back to Chapter 3 when commenting on this chapter on your web site. There we are told that to encourage the people to live simply and happily, avoiding competitiveness, greed and jealousy, the leader must practice simplicity. There have been world leaders who have shown that can be done – people like Gandhi and Mandela. Though I’m afraid that Mr. Obama is not quite up to it, some of us out in the hinterlands (which is far from the Beltway) can do our best to follow the natural flow of life. I have faith that doing so could prove contagious. It could bring us the best kind of leader somewhere down the road.

      You are probably also correct in surmising that President Obama has had more than his share of feelings of grief and frustration. I imagine that he sometimes leans back in his big chair in the oval office, closes his eyes and daydreams about the simpler days of the past, standing alone and looking out across the Kenyan hills.

      (That last sentence was a joke – though not a very good one.)

      Matters concerning war are seldom simple, even if there were a society in which the people and their leader lived and fostered the simple Taoist life. I have had discussions with several very intelligent, knowledgeable people during the past few months about war and other things that are harmful to children and such. One of them was Dave (whom you know, but to give him a bit of privacy, I won’t mention his last name here on the world wide web), a brilliant scientist whose work on earthquakes and landslides has helped save the lives and property of an untold number of people. He told me that toward the end of World War II his father’s job was to fly over Japan, in broad daylight, in what was essentially an unarmed plane, to photograph results of bombing that had occurred under cover of darkness the previous night. The life expectancy of those doing that work was not very long. It turned out, though, that Dave’s father did not need to do that for very long because after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war ended. So those bombs – which were terrible things – indirectly spared this father’s life and permitted Dave to be born.

      I promise that no matter what, I will never become a national leader. Still, I will try to live simply; and maybe that will eventually bring us the kind of leader we need.

      • Your post inspired some memories. Say hello to Dave for me the next time you talk to him. I met his Dad once and my recollection is of a man with powerful forearms and great eyes – they twinkled with wisdom and humor, and he seemed to me to be powerful and gentle at the same time. A very memorable guy.

        Also, if you will, let Dave know I sincerely regret being a jerk at his party all those many years ago and that when he hit me between the shoulder blades to enlighten me to my jerkness it really hurt, I earned it and deserved it, and it was a helluva punch. I sincerely apologize for being the fool I was. Hopefully he has forgotten it all, but if he remembers I hope he will forgive me and laugh.

        And now I remember a basketball game we were all at, and a rather large bully picking on us who I invited outside where I did my best to break his nose. I had the good fortune to have the fight broken up by a cop just as the guy overpowered me and was getting ready to punch my lights out. I think I maybe did break his nose, though…

        Ah, the good old days. The two of you were much better people than I was, and I doubt that has changed. Let me take this opportunity to apologize to all for the fool of my youth, with whom you are well acquainted, and wish all my old friends the very best of everything.

        Sincerely, abashedly yours,


        • BTW- If you guys show up in a black and white Detroit sled and tell me you’re getting the old band back together, I’m in. I can still play the fool like anything.

        • Dave says he does not remember the incident at his party. I passed your email address on to him, so he may write to you.

          I recall the basketball game – at the brand new Cherry Creek High School. After you and your new friend had begun walking toward the door, I mentioned to the others with whom we had come that perhaps we should step out to keep anything violent from happening. They assured me that you were quite capable of handling things yourself. I wasn’t so sure, so I headed on out by myself. I saw a small crowd and went in that direction just in time to see someone being pulled off of you. I thought it was good that no one was hurt; but then you did mention the possible broken nose …..

          Being struck between the shoulder blades comes up frequently in Zen stories and Carlos Castaneda books as a way of opening a person’s “sight,” or sometimes of attaining enlightenment. I guess it was good that Dave could do that for you.



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