Looking back on leadership
Soon it will be Presidents Day; a day of passion and remembrance. Until 1971, both Wednesday and Feb. 22 were observed as federal public holidays to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and George Washington (Feb. 22). In 1971 President Nixon proclaimed one single federal public holiday, Presidents’ Day, to be observed on the third Monday of February, honoring all past presidents of the United States of America.
The U.S. presidency is one of the most prominent threads which run through the tapestry of the U.S. government. The presidential role includes that of Head of State, Chief Executive, Commander-in-Chief, Chief Law and Budget Planner, and Chief Diplomat. The powers of the presidency is extraordinary and necessarily great, and great presidents treat them sparingly. A sensibility of this, and not the degree of this power, is the source of presidential dignity. It depends entirely upon character, self-discipline and an understanding of the fundamental principles that underlie not only the republic, but life itself.
Presidents Day was first established as a day to recognize and honor the birthday of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. It was Washington who said “Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.” And we remember Lincoln for much including these words “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
So far, 15 of the 44 U.S. Presidents span my life time; 14 of which I have recollections of their service. The first was Herbert Hoover, who served during my early infancy. I have no personal memories of his tenure in office, but he is one with whom I had corresponded.
Our presidents have left an enduring legacy of service. Part of their legacy is found in their spoken and written statements. Of those who served in the White House for whom I have some remembrance, the following statements of theirs tell us something about the person and their statesmanship:
¯ Herbert Hoover — “Peace is not made at the council table or by treaties, but in the hearts of men.”
¯ Franklin D. Roosevelt — “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”
¯ Harry S. Truman — “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”
¯ Dwight D. Eisenhower — “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”
¯ John F. Kennedy — “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
¯ Lyndon B. Johnson — “We must throw open the doors of opportunity. But we also must equip our people to walk through these doors.”
¯ Richard M. Nixon — “Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”
¯ Gerald R. Ford — “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”
¯ Jimmy Carter — “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense human rights invented America.”
¯ Ronald Reagan — “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
¯ George H. W. Bush — “We are a nation of communities … a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”
¯ William Jefferson Clinton — “In the new economy, information, education, and motivation are everything.”
¯ George W. Bush — “I have a different vision of leadership. A leadership is someone who brings people together.”
¯ Barack Obama — “And I will do everything that I can as long as I am President of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation under God, and we may call that God different names but we remain one nation.”
¯ Donald Trump — “Without passion you don’t have energy, without energy you have nothing. … Together, we will make America great again.”
In conclusion, the American Presidency is a part of our shared national heritage. Many great Presidents and generations of people have come and gone; but, the vibrancy of their character and the legacy of their leadership lives on. They serve as a beacon of hope for each of us as we constructively strive to meet the challenges of our time. And we will not forget.
Dr. Robert L Heichberger is a resident of Gowanda and Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at SUNY Fredonia