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The final weeks of the presidential race have brought an outbreak of fear. Both President George W. Bush and his challenger, Sen. John Kerry, are airing TV ads, the gist of which is that if you vote for the other guy you’re going to go broke and everyone’s going to die.
Kerry’s turn to fear is understandable. His campaign has little else to offer other than to play on America’s lingering fear of Iraq turning into a quagmire like Vietnam. But the fact that President Bush has turned to fear is disappointing.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Bush captured the hearts of the American people by doing precisely the opposite, teaching them not to be afraid. When the Secret Service flew him to Nebraska from Florida on that awful day, refusing to allow him to return to Washington, he angrily declared that he refused to fear “a bunch of tin-can terrorists.” Three days later, standing atop a pile of rubble at ground zero with a bullhorn, he announced his intention to bring the fight to the enemy. They were the ones that better be scared. As he told a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, 2001: “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”
Europeans wonder how we Americans can tolerate such a “stupid” president. Such condescending sentiments are even more erroneous than they are arrogant. Leadership is not about big brains, but big guts. If great leadership consisted merely of the highest IQ score, then choosing a president would be a simple matter of waltzing into Harvard every four years and choosing the largest cranium that could be found. Of course, the reason we don’t do this is that, having sat through enough Oxford lectures in my time, the president or prime minister would be coma-inducing, putting the people to sleep rather than waking them up.
By contrast, a great president inspires the people. The secret of Bush’s popularity, which few have touched on, is how he inspires Americans not to be afraid. Tyrants and dictators keep themselves in power by keeping their people afraid. Great leaders, however, not only motivate their people, they liberate them from fear.
- When Washington, D.C., was nearly captured by the South after the second battle of Bull Run in the Civil War, Lincoln not only refused to evacuate the capitol, he fearlessly went to the front lines to encourage the embattled troops to fight on. Later, Lincoln insisted on traveling to the Confederate capitol of Richmond just two days after its capture by Union troops even though there remained a hornet’s nest of Confederate snipers.
- Likewise, Churchill famously refused to leave London during the worst pounding of the Battle of Britain, even as American Ambassador Joseph Kennedy shamefully ran to the countryside with his large family for cover.
- When John Paul II was still a very new pope, he wrote a letter to the secretary of the Soviet Communist Party saying that he would resign the papacy to join the front lines of the solidarity movement in Poland if Russian tanks invaded his homeland to crush the pro-democracy movement. His letter emboldened the Poles, terrified the Russians, and they did not invade.
- Faced with the worst economic crisis in American history, Franklin Roosevelt declared in his unforgettable inaugural speech that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Later, on Jan. 6, 1941, he delivered his famous “Four Freedoms” speech in which he envisioned a world anchored in a “freedom from fear.”
The secret to fearlessness is faith.
- The night before he died, Martin Luther King famously proclaimed, “I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” King was a deeply religious man. He never went by any title other than “Reverend.” He felt he had been called upon by God to end the immorality of segregation and he was immunized from fear by that deep connection to a higher source – a connection that even an assassin’s bullet could not sever.
- The iron will of Abraham Lincoln was sustained in the darkest years of the Civil War by prayer and reading the Bible nightly. “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go,” he famously wrote.
- During World War II, the utterly fearless Gen. George Patton read the Bible every night before going to sleep. And no doubt, the fearlessness of saintly figures like Mother Theresa, who embraced lepers and cleaned their weeping sores with her bare hands, came from a strong faith in a merciful God.
Fear is primarily an isolating experience, a feeling that you are all alone against the darkness. But the more attached you are to God, the more you become contemptuous of evil. As Dorothy Bernard said, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”
What made George W. Bush fearless in his decision to go into Afghanistan, a country which proved to be the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, was his rock-solid faith in America as the world’s beacon of freedom, with a responsibility to punish wicked terrorists and liberate oppressed people’s everywhere.
Bush’s biggest critics, like Ron Suskind of the New York Times Magazine, who last week castigated Bush for a naive “certainty” born of faith, miss the point entirely.
It was that same moral certainty, born of faith, that kept Lincoln in the war against disunion and slavery even after two years of epic Northern defeats. In his second inaugural speech, Lincoln famously said as much: “… with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in …”
George Bush’s greatest hopes for victory against John Kerry rests in his ability to forego the fearmongering and recapture the spirit of fearlessness with which he once endowed the American people.
Because the most memorable gift that one human being affords another is not the freedom from poverty, or the freedom from want, but the freedom from fear.