Malachi gave voice to a supreme imperative — we humans, being prone to stray, must continuously readjust and return so we can stay our course. Pride and hubris would have us double down until we meet our nemesis and wreck our ship. Not seeing tragedy as the final word, the prophets of Israel taught that we have a choice: rather than holding onto pride, we should heed the divine voice asking for our return.
It’s rare and precious to have political leaders who heed Malachi’s words. How many Lincolns are there? But how unforgettable and moving it is, and how strengthening to a nation to have such leaders in a time of crisis. They help us to cling fast to those principles which make us good and which define a people’s real and lasting greatness.
And how disheartening it is to have our political leaders fail us by trying to substitute pride and presumption for moral leadership.
In the spring of 2008, Barack Obama had a chance to display greatness. It had just come to wide attention that Obama had sat for 20 years in the church of a man who counted the vicious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan as an ally. Week after week, Obama imbibed his preacher’s sophisticated version of Farrakhan as he spread virulent anti-Israel and anti-American messages from his pulpit. So many were appalled by this that Obama realized his presidential campaign was in serious trouble. He announced that he would address the nation in order to clear his name.
Among so many others, I eagerly awaited Obama’s message. To that point, as much as I disagreed with most of the policies he espoused, I had appreciated his eloquence, intelligence, and coolness. It’s good to have intelligence and eloquence in politics, even if it is from people on the other side of the aisle. It ups everyone’s game and strengthens our republic. Honest, vigorous, intelligent debate strengthens our thinking and our connection to each other. It’s a mainstay of rabbinic culture.
Obama now had a chance to show moral leadership and set the tone for a magnificent campaign and presidency that could unite us all. He could own up to the mistake of an association with hatred and return to the good and godly path. I imagined him saying something like, “When I sat at the feet of the reverend, I was young and swayed by his soaring rhetoric and emotion. I did not realize the hatefulness of his message. But now, I see what he was teaching and I regret not seeing the hatred before. I ask forgiveness for the past and resolve to fight fiercely for a united America free of all hatred.”
Intelligence unguided by principle and morality is mere cleverness at best, and can be deadly dangerous. Instead of bringing healing by admitting error and changing course, Obama lectured the whole country on its racism. He skillfully evaded making any kind of admission of any wrong. So skilled was Obama’s double-down that he turned around his plummeting popularity and went on to win his primary.
In the end, there is always hell to pay for empowering such moral failings.
Obama protected his nod to hatred by projecting his failing onto the entire country. Since we are all tainted by racism, Obama implied, our eyes must be lying to us about any fault we imagine we see in him. Instead of owning up to an immature mistake and teaching America by powerful example how such mistakes can be overcome and their stain cleansed, Obama ducked his personal responsibility and, with eyes on the power he wished to secure, used his own persuasive skill to convince us that the hatred we saw was all our own fault.
Through the moral failure of Obama and those who bought his line and enabled him, the cancer of racial division was kicked up into metastasis. By the end of Obama’s two terms, the new racism had engulfed the whole country. Politicians found they could prosper by deflecting every criticism as racist. Industries peddling fashionable guilt joined them in forthrightly accepting race as the definitive test of worthiness for everything from a government grant to college admission to a job to the acceptable plot lines in movies or punch lines in jokes. Just as it was with the architects of Jim Crow, so too in post-Obama America: there is no other objective criterion that can compare with race.
Joe (“You Ain’t Black”) Biden, like so many of his party, used the Obama-era’s post-modern racism to campaign for his own power. His attempts to sound home-boy were less cringe-worthy than Hillary’s painful attempt (“I don’t feel no ways tired”) to talk black — but that is not saying much.
And Joe has also tried to get out of a pickle of his own making by lecturing us, just like Obama.
When Afghanistan came crashing down on his head, Joe went on vacation. Then when that backfired, he talked ineffectively, loose with the truth, inconsistent with numbers and principles he had enunciated only shortly before, and by turns peremptory and incoherent. Finally, since nothing else had worked, he decided, like his patron Obama, to address the nation. And just like his patron, instead of living up to the moral demand of the moment for honesty, candor, and humility, he followed in his patron’s footsteps. Instead of facing the debacle squarely and with cleansing honesty, he raised his voice and lectured America.
Instead of soul searching, instead of facing hard truths, Joe told us the unfolding disaster we all see is really a mighty triumph of policy, the product of political wisdom and deep compassion. And of course, Donald Trump was to blame for it. (For what? The wisdom and compassion?)
As for the assurance that no one would be left behind, well, those he was leaving behind weren’t really Americans (dual passports make dual loyalties, when that is politically expedient), they don’t really want to leave, or they just didn’t listen to us.
And what could Joe do? He had no idea that the Taliban were going to win so quickly or that the Afghan forces were falling apart. C’mon, man.
And it is all true because Joe spoke with the energy and the anger of a meth head and he lectured us, just as Jen Psaki so helpfully “called out” reporters who dared to say that Americans were being stranded in Kabul.
It is painful and exhausting to go over the details of the absurdities and the untruths of this speech. They are well documented by many in these pages and across the media.
I wonder at this mode of lecturing by powerful politicians. Bill Clinton wagging his finger at us telling us what he did not do. Hillary Clinton, in charge of silencing all of Bill’s sexual conquests, telling America that the only thing real behind all the allegations was a vast right-wing conspiracy. Obama’s lecture to duck accountability for his 20-year apprenticeship to an apologist for Jew-hating jihadis. And Biden, lacking Obama’s smooth intelligence and youthful vigor, as if pumped up on some witches’ energy potion, telling us this monstrous disaster is really a triumph second to none.
I wonder if there is anything more clearly at odds with what Malachi tells us.
Our responsibility is to govern ourselves, and to return to truth and sanity if we realize we have strayed. The good will return to us when we return to it. If we do not govern ourselves, no government can do it for us. And we will elect leaders who show our own faults on a jumbotron to an appalled world.
But perhaps asking for prophetic humility is not appropriate for politicians, who after all have special responsibilities that they have taken upon themselves by oath.
Churchill put it this way (with slight editing for brevity):
Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities . . . Their duty is first so to deal with other nations as to avoid strife and war . . . But the safety of the State, the lives and freedom of their own fellow countrymen . . . make it right and imperative that in the last resort, or when a final and definite conviction has been reached, that the use of force should not be excluded. . . . And if force may be used, it should be used under conditions which are most favorable.
What condemns Biden is the neglect of the lives and freedom of fellow countrymen, and the reckless creation of unfavorable conditions for saving their lives from the dangers his policy choices helped set in place.
Unlike Biden, Churchill honestly shared the difficulty of decisions involving so many lives and the proper use of force: “These are the tormenting dilemmas upon which mankind has throughout its history been so frequently impaled.”
These are deep questions whose answers are tough. They cannot be avoided by spin, or shifted off with a facile, raised-voice lecture, a cheap projection of fault onto others. People know how deep these problems are and they appreciate honesty.
Churchill summed up his train of thought: “There is, however, one helpful guide, namely for a nation to keep its word . . . This guide is called honor.”
After admitting that exaggerated honor can lead to vain and unreasonable deeds, he asserted that that does not mean that a real sense of honor is not indeed essential in successfully negotiating the struggles that nations undergo. Referring to the commitments to the Czechs that the French and British dishonored in the run-up to World War II, Churchill concluded: “Here the moment came when Honour pointed the path of Duty, and when also the right judgment of facts at that time would have reinforced its dictates.”
Churchill’s depth and sincerity expose Biden’s lecture for the pale and shallow substitute for leadership that it was. The Pale President, praising himself, scolding his critics, moving from contradiction to obfuscation to untruth, tried to paint himself as splendid, honorable, and wise. And as a nation that chose such a leader, we are all implicated.
Failing to uphold either honor or Malachi’s call to return, we are left only with shame and the secret cry of those with whom we have broken faith and left behind.
Let us resolve to return to the right in every choice we now make.