Looking for Honesty in Our Leaders

Monterey County Herald, June 10, 2005
By Leon E. Panetta
In the darkest days of the winter of 1942, the United States and Britain were trying to recover from a series of military disasters. President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were urgently meeting in Washington to develop their war plans and prepare their nations for the difficult days ahead.

Both leaders believed that their people deserved the truth. “There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away,” Churchill wrote, “… the people can face peril or misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, but they bitterly resent being deceived or finding that those responsible for their affairs are themselves dwelling in a fool’s paradise.”

Roosevelt shared the same view as Churchill. “The news is going to get worse and worse before it begins to get better,” Roosevelt said. “The American people must be prepared for it and they must get it straight from the shoulder.”

These two great leaders believed that people would respect candor if they were confident that their leaders were being honest with them and had a plan for moving forward.

Today, some 63 years later, it would be well for public leadership to listen carefully to the words of Churchill and Roosevelt.

While the world of 2005 is not the same as the world of 1941, the responsibilities of elected leaders have not changed. Terrorism and the rising insurgency and instability of Iraq, the precarious nature of our economy in a global marketplace, the increasing threat of global warming and the growing divisions within American society pose fundamental challenges for the America of the 21st century.

It is irresponsible to assume that these problems somehow will take care of themselves. Just as a nation had to mobilize for action in 1942, so too must a nation have a clear plan for action in dealing with the crises of 2005. Instead, we are often fed a steady diet of political pablum, double talk and partisan baloney.

As the attacks in London make clear, the fundamental focus of the United States and the world should be on going after al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. The truth is that they remain the greatest threats to our security. Instead, the bulk of our fighting forces are now bogged down in Iraq.

With close to 1,750 American troops killed, continuing insurgent attacks, and overstretched U.S. forces that fight to free cities only to have them return to insurgents, there is growing frustration and concern among the American people with this war.

President Bush had an opportunity to tell the American people “straight from the shoulder” what is happening and what the strategy must be to bring this conflict to an end.

Rather than speaking directly from the Oval Office, he spoke from Fort Bragg surrounded by troops in a campaign-style setting. And worse, he continued to use 9/11 over and over again to justify a war that had nothing whatsoever to do with the terrorist attacks. He repeated that a stable and democratic Iraq would be worth American sacrifices, but failed to say how those sacrifices would produce stability in Iraq.

No one wants a disaster in Iraq, but no one wants false hopes either. When the vice president said that the insurgency was in its “last throes,” even the generals had to correct him.

The president cannot continue to obsess about self-justification and the need to color Iraq with the memory of 9/11. What the people need is leadership that will provide a frank discussion about where we go from here in order to bring this war to an end and focus on the true terrorists of 9/11. The public knows that its sons and daughters are fighting and dying in a brutal war that is part of a real world. They want to know that their leaders are living in the same real world and not in a “fool’s paradise.”

The same is true for our economy. With close to 50 percent of our debt now owned by China and Japan, the nation’s currency and trade are at serious risk. With a record annual deficit that is expected to add some $4 trillion to $5 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years, the U.S. economy is increasingly vulnerable to the whims of foreign lenders.

Household debt is also on the increase. Not only are new homebuyers taking out bigger mortgages, but existing owners have increased their mortgages to turn capital gains into cash that they can spend. America has seen one of the biggest increases in home-price inflation in history. According to estimates by The Economist, the current housing boom is larger than the stock market bubble in the late 1990s. But if that bubble bursts as some predict, the record federal deficit will make it that much more difficult to recover.

And yet, when was the last time the public leadership of either party spoke directly to the American people and said the current mindless borrowing spree must be stopped? Instead, both the president and the Congress continue to increase deficits and ignore the inevitable consequences. Instead of disciplining the budget, they are holding out “false hopes” that the debt will somehow take care of itself. Talk about a “fool’s paradise!”

The crisis of global warming is real and irrefutable: the polar icecaps are melting, the oceans are becoming more acetic, the 1990s were the hottest decade of the entire century — 1998, 2001 and 2002 were three of the hottest years ever recorded — and worldwide weather patterns are changing dramatically. And yet, in the face of overwhelming scientific proof, the president and the Congress refuse to take any strong steps to deal with this threat. Even business leaders now recognize that the failure to deal with this issue by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is not only harmful to the planet, it is undercutting their competitive edge in the marketplace.

Shouldn’t public leadership have a clear plan to deal with this threat? Wouldn’t a little honest discussion about the real threats we face and the steps needed to confront them be a refreshing change from all the double talk?

Finally, it is no secret that this country is increasingly divided between the red and the blue states, between evangelicals and secularists, between Democrats and Republicans, between conservatives and liberals.

The current vacancy on the Supreme Court is being viewed by groups on the right and left as an opportunity to further divide the nation. There is the real prospect, depending on whom the president nominates, that there could be a deeply partisan war that could lead to the so-called “nuclear option” eliminating the filibuster and bringing the business of the U.S. Senate to a virtual halt.

This is yet another opportunity for the president to exercise the kind of public leadership that Churchill spoke of. It is a unique moment when the president, through the quality of his nominee, could unite rather than divide the Senate and the nation. Neither party should expect a nominee who will rubber-stamp their ideology. The president owes the nation a nominee with integrity, a distinguished judicial reputation, a keen legal mind and an abiding respect for the Constitution. The Senate owes the nation a dignified nomination process.

This will be a crucial test for the public leadership of a nation.

When Churchill and Roosevelt rallied their nations to war, they did it with the truth and with a frank discussion of the realities they were confronting. More importantly, they had a clear unifying vision for the kind of world they wanted. The 20th century was a better place because of their strong leadership.

The question is whether the 21st century will be a better place or will we pay the price for those who make the worst “mistake of public leadership” by trying to deceive and divide themselves and the public from the truth.

Leon Panetta’s column appears every other month in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.


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