It now seems certain that 2019 will be one of the most challenging and consequential years in recent American history.
As the House of Representatives moves forward with an impeachment inquiry and is likely to consider articles of impeachment this fall, the United States needs leaders in both parties to display a quality that has been in scant supply in recent years — statesmanship.
Statesmanship is a pattern of leadership, and an approach to public service, that is characterized by vision, courage, compassion, civility, fairness and wisdom. Statesmanship can involve bipartisanship, but it is not the same as bipartisanship. History proves that there can be a strong bipartisan consensus to enact harmful policies or to evade difficult alternatives.
When statesmen consider public policy issues, their first question is, “What is in the public interest?” Personal and partisan considerations can follow later, but hopefully much later. If the national good is not identical to, or even clashes with, personal and partisan considerations, the former must prevail.
Genuine statesmanship requires leaders to dispassionately consider issues, carefully weigh evidence, and fairly render verdicts, even if they go against personal preferences or are contrary to the desires of their political base.
Given our current political climate it is easy to forget that statesmanship, while unusual, has been a critical feature of American politics and history.
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Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg played a pivotal role in the late 1940s in securing congressional approval of key elements of President Harry Truman’s foreign policy including the Marshall Plan and NATO. Vandenberg’s cooperation with a Democratic president effectively killed his ambitions for the White House. Margaret Chase Smith, a first-term GOP senator from Maine, broke from party ranks in 1950 and challenged Joseph McCarthy and his demagogic tactics. William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, conducted searching hearings about the war in Vietnam in 1966 despite the fierce opposition to these hearings by leader of his party, Democratic president Lyndon Johnson. Senate Republican Leader Howard Baker damaged his chances for the 1980 GOP presidential nomination by supporting the Panama Canal treaties that were negotiated by President Jimmy Carter. Republican Richard Lugar, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, defied President Ronald Reagan in the mid-1980s and pushed for economic sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Lugar later worked with President Barack Obama, a Democrat, on an arms control treaty with Russia that undermined his standing among many in the Republican Party.
There were strong partisan feelings aroused by President Richard Nixon’s 1974 impeachment drama, but many leading Democrats and Republicans eschewed partisan talking points and endeavored to determine the truth about Nixon’s behavior. During President Bill Clinton’s impeachment saga in 1998 and 1999, partisan divisions on Capitol Hill were sharper and fewer lawmakers approached the proceedings in a fair-minded and public spirited way.
Congress must now rise to the occasion as it considers the fate of President Donald Trump.
Democrats should fairly evaluate the evidence as it pertains to Trump’s interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other issues that relate to the impeachment inquiry. They should not overreach because of their antipathy to Trump or avoid their responsibilities if they fear the impeachment process will complicate their 2020 electoral prospects. Republicans must end their reflexive and unworthy tendency to overlook the president’s frequently egregious and possibly criminal behavior because Trump remains hugely popular with the GOP base. Republicans must honorably assess all the evidence that is produced by the impeachment inquiry.
Sen. Paul Simon, a consequential and successful public official in Illinois for more than four decades, worried during his final years that statesmanship was at a low ebb. “We have spawned ‘leadership’ that does not lead, that panders to our whims rather than telling us the truth, that follows the crowd rather than challenges us, that weakens us rather than strengthening us. It is easy to go downhill, and we are now following that easy path. Pandering is not illegal, but it is immoral. It is doing the convenient when the right course demands inconvenience and courage.”
Decades earlier, Sen. John F. Kennedy wrote eloquently about political bravery. In "Profiles in Courage," he argued that politicians sometimes face “a difficult and soul-searching decision” in which “we must on occasion lead, inform, correct and sometimes even ignore constituent opinion.” Kennedy added that being courageous “requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place and circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to all of us. Politics merely furnishes one arena which imposes special tests of courage.”
Those tests are coming to the United States.
John T. Shaw is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His books include "Rising Star, Setting Sun: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and the Presidential Transition that Changed America" and "JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency."