Why can’t today’s politicians learn the simple lessons former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush apparently have?
In an age of partisan warfare and runaway egos in Washington, those two got together last week at the Bush Center to talk about leadership. In separate remarks, each of them touted the need for humility.
“I think it’s important to know what you don’t know and listen to people who do know what you don’t know,” Bush said, according to CNN. For his part, Clinton warned history would be the ultimate judge of those who govern with arrogance.
Leadership, Clinton said, is “about the people, not about you.”
We’re tempted to note here that each of these leaders exhibited partisan behavior and took part in the bitter struggles that raged during the time they served. Clinton, in particular, endured an impeachment trial during which he often appeared less than humble. Bush declared with hubris that he had accomplished his mission in Iraq, which subsequent events contradicted.
But the behavior politicians today seem prone to embrace has less to do with partisan promotion than with attitude. Politicians from the time of George Washington have lauded their own ideas and leadership qualities as the best. But many also have, until recently, acknowledged some virtue on the part of their opponents and sought for meaningful compromise. That seems lacking today.
Clinton’s embrace of Republican welfare reform is a prime example. Bush gallantly promoted sensible immigration reform against the wishes of many in his own party.
Enacting lasting reforms and solving divisive problems require humility. So does facing difficult foreign policy matters while at the head of the world’s most powerful military.
Along with humility comes respect. When he left office, Clinton said he offered Bush his support. He acknowledged at the time he may have to express his political differences with Bush in public, especially considering his wife, Hillary Clinton, was then a senator, but he said, “I’ll never embarrass you in public.” He also expressed his hope that Bush would succeed as president.
For his part, Bush said he and his family were quick to embrace Clinton because of his graciousness after defeating the elder President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Imagine how today’s debates over health care and tax reform would change if lawmakers sought ways to get what their constituents want while also allowing members of the other party to get some of the things their constituents want. Imagine the different tone and tenor of social media and talk radio discussions.
The alternative is to end up like the Taiwanese Parliament, whose members engaged in physical violence in recent days over differences in a plan to build the island’s infrastructure. By the looks of the politicians who menacingly held chairs above their heads, a compromise was not on the horizon.
Clinton’s wisdom about history standing as a judge often gets lost in the heat of battle, where temporary victories seem so important. But the ultimate test will be how the actions of today’s leaders helped the American people, not how they helped themselves politically.