When President Teddy Roosevelt attended the funeral of a member of British royalty, he declined the offer of a gilded carriage for the funeral procession. Roosevelt told his British hosts that it would be inappropriate for the head of a republic. He would therefore walk.
One of President Franklin Roosevelt's favorite things to do was to pack a lunch, drive up into the Pine Mountains, pull off the road, spread a blanket and enjoy a picnic lunch with two or three of his friends.
In 1933, an assassin opened fire on Roosevelt during an appearance in an open car in Miami. The mayor of Chicago, however, was in the way and took the bullets. The Secret Service members immediately started to speed away, and Roosevelt ordered them to stop and retrieve the wounded mayor. At first they didn't, until he shouted, "Damn it, back this car up and get the mayor!" They did, and carried the wounded mayor to the hospital in the president's car. The mayor later died.
President Harry Truman always took a vigorous daily walk — on the streets of Washington. When his term ended, he and his wife took a cab to the train station, where they returned to Missouri. Truman, by the way, refused all offers to serve on corporate boards of directors. "You don't want me, you want the presidency, and that's not mine to sell," he said.
If you will recall the funeral procession for Princess Diana, you will remember that the royal princes walked the route to Westminster Cathedral. Imagine that — British royalty walking down a street jammed with common people.
The last time President George W. Bush visited the British Isles, the Air Force had to fly over a fleet of 16 armored limousines for use of the president and his entourage.
If you are young and don't like to read (I hope this hasn't become a redundancy), then you are probably unaware of the transition from a republic to an empire. One of the reasons I'm so contemptuous of modern politicians is that I don't compare them with each other; I compare them with the great men of the past. The last elected president who had genuinely great accomplishments on his résumé was Dwight Eisenhower.
There is no such thing as a flawless politician. We should never expect perfection in anything involving human beings. But there very much is such a thing as character, and that's where we've gotten careless in our choice of leaders.
The foundations of character are honesty, courage and fidelity. An adulterer who is unfaithful to his wife is hardly likely to be faithful to his oath of office. John F. Kennedy was an adulterer and a playboy, but he was the first president to be marketed like a bar of soap or a tube of toothpaste. It becomes more and more difficult these days to distinguish between accomplishment and image.
To get even an idea of a person's character, you have to look at his whole life, not just the public image. People rarely, if ever, change their character after adolescence. Hopefully, they will grow in knowledge and perhaps wisdom, but most people remain the same people they always were as far as character is concerned. Self-indulgent cowards don't become brave stoics.
Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust, discovered that the hellish experience didn't change anybody. Those who were bad remained bad, and those who were good remained good. I suppose the question for us today is, Have we lost the ability to distinguish between good and bad?
July 3, 2007
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.
© 2007 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.