Gerald Ford died yesterday. He was a well-beloved president and one can hear approving remarks about him from people on all points of political spectrum. He brought a moral stability to the presidency after the horror and betrayal of watergate. He and his cabinet used succesful economic strategies to confront the most pressing problems of that day, such as inflation, overtaxation, and a depressed economy. Before his four-year term was finished and he passed the mantle to President Carter, he served the most prestigious role of leadership in his country with dignity and integrity.
Every leadership role a temporary one. A man may be president for four or eight years, but not more, and he must pass the presidency on. He will pass it to a completely new person, with unpredictable priorities and motivations. The new president may work to counteract all that the first has done. And the next president may work to counteract all that of the second and first. This does not, and should not, prevent each from serving in the best way he knows how, with all of his heart and strength. It does mean that each should serve with an awareness of the ‘temporariness,’ or the passing nature, of his role.
Augustine says, “For the words we speak we hear by the same physical perception, and yet you do not wish the syllables to stay, but to fly away, that others may come, and the whole be heard.” (Confessions IV.17) The part is always a part of the whole, and the part must pass away for the sake of the succeeding parts, and these parts must pass away for the sake of the whole. This is the principle in speech, and in story-telling, and in eating and every other daily activity, so why should it be different in leadership? The role of the president seems ultimate and final, but in reality, it is a part of the grander and much longer and more grueling duty of keeping the United States of America a healthy and functioning nation, not just for four years, but for four-hundred, and longer, as God wills it. This grand duty, this “whole,” can be accomplished by no single man. And so each man must play his part, and then give his part up for the sake of the greater cause.
An unwavering awareness of the passing and mutable nature of a leadership position prevents common errors in judgment and motivation. For instance, a politician might seek to rise as high as conceivably possible in the governmental structure of his nation only for the sake of the power and the honor he would thereby incur. This imperfect motive is rendered meaningless in light of the fact that one’s personal position of power and honor will disappear within four to eight years of having it. What is the point of being powerful for power’s sake if it will be taken from you almost immediately after it is given? It is like a man who amasses wealth throughout his life, not for the sake of the benefits that can be purchased with wealth, but for the having of it. Imagine the last day of his life, when he has just secured a multi-million dollar real estate deal. He profits greatly, he rejoices, and then passes away. His body ceases to function, and his mighty bank account is distributed to his friends, families, and his board of directors. What use is it to him that he secured that last deal? Similarly, the personally rewarding feeling of power that comes from attaining to a position such as the presidency will necessarily pass, leaving nothing in its place. Even the honorary title “president” which continues on until death is no representation of present power. It might be a representation of present honor, but of past power it is no more than a reminder.
My sister has gave birth to a daughter this Christmas season. I have a new niece, who is, today, four days old. The birth of my niece not only represents the beginning of an epoch in my sister and brother-in-law’s life, for this is their first child, but a new epoch in mine as well. They are parents for the first time, and I am the uncle of a new niece. They were not parents before, but now, being parents, they will continue to serve that role until death, either their own or that of their children. Similarly, though in a lesser fashion, I am responsible to be an uncle for the rest of my life, and the life of my four nieces and nephews.
Being an uncle is a position of leadership, a sort of sub-parenting. As I seek the strategies for being a good role model and influence on this precious little ones’ lives, I am reminded by Augustine to keep in mind that even a life-long duty is a temporary duty. For if we trust the words of Jesus then we know there is a life to come. This life will last much longer than the life on earth. And so even my life-long role as uncle must be seen as a doing of my duty, a “sounding my part” in the great cosmic sentence, and giving way to those who will succeed me.
If I live to a ripe old age of 80 years, then my niece will be 56 when I die. She and her generation will take what we, her leaders, have taught them, and they will lead the world, with no future help from us. This plain and obvious, but easy to forget, truth motivates me to be a good leader, and a leader who does not have an overinflated view of my own role. I am not the end all or be all, for my niece, nor for my students, nor for my children, if I have them one day. But I am a temporary leader, who is to totally expend himself in service during my eight to eighty year term, before gracefully bowing out to my successors.
As president, Gerald Ford expended himself with love, enthusiasm, and responsibility. His term finished, and he is accountible to those he served, the American people. He may be counted a success, or failure, or more realistically, some complex mixture of the two. As a man, Gerald Ford is accountable to those he served… his family, friends, and acquantinces. Only they can say whether or not he was a success. But seeing his example as president, we would do well to seek to imitate his wisdom and character in the execution of our own duties in whatever roles of leadership we occupy. And we, the American people, grieve his passing, and celebrate his leadership.
Augustine continues on to say, “Thus it is always, when any single thing is composed of many, all of which do not exist together, all together would delight more than they do simply if all could be perceived at once. But far better than these is He who made all; and He is our God, and He passes not away, for there is nothing to succeed Him.”