Art Callaham - Presidential courage is a historical reality

December 10, 2011|By ART CALLAHAM

A good friend of mine called the other day and suggested that I write another column about courage. Now please understand that my friend was not suggesting that I am personally courageous, rather he knew that I had researched the human characteristic called courage and written about it before.

Courage, a noun, speaks to one's mind or spirit and the ability to "face difficulty."  The action most often associated with courage is: "bravery." One can be courageous in mind and spirit and be or not be brave in action. Conversely, an apparent brave action might occur and be based upon other characteristics of the mind or spirit — political expediency comes to mind.

George Washington displayed both courage and personal bravery when he led the vastly depleted American Army, many shoeless; on the Christmas Eve, 1776, sortie across the ice-laden Delaware River to attack Prussian mercenaries fighting for the British.

Newt Gingrich, in several speeches made while running for the presidency, gives a stirring account of this singular moment in American history. The American army, once boasting 30,000 men at arms overlooking Boston and New York during the summer of 1776, was reduced to approximately 2,500 by Christmas. That year, winter came early and was as harsh a winter as most, at that time, could recall. That devastating loss of soldiers brought a compelling reality to Thomas Paine's immortal words about "summer soldiers and sunshine patriots." Truly, those were "the times that try men's souls."

The American Army's password that night was "victory or death." How apropos to the situation; victory would secure the battlefield win that Washington desperately needed. A victory for the revolution would hopefully fuel continuation of our nation's quest for liberty and independence. Defeat would surely toll the death knell of the army, if not death to its leaders, all deemed traitors by the British Crown.

Later, George Washington displayed a different aspect of courage; moral courage, when he refused a third term as president. This display of courage did not require a requisite show of personal bravery; it was simply the courage to do the right thing.

As often reported, Washington made that decision because he felt that another term in office might well be considered a return to "kingship;" prompting the secession of the regular and free elections called for in our Constitution. A morally courageous action when you consider that most nations, at the time, viewed blood lines and divine right as the only way to select leaders.

Through 44 presidents, we have had our share of courageous leaders. Madison, arguably our smallest in physical stature, led us to victory in our second war with the British.

Lincoln courageously persevered and preserved the union while freeing the slaves. Lincoln's are examples of courage, personal bravery and more importantly moral courage.

Franklin Roosevelt, ostensibly an invalid, led us out of the "great depression," into and out of World War II and kept our nation focused on freedom. John Kennedy faced down the Soviets over Cuba. Lyndon Johnson brought new meaning to "civil rights" and helped renew our faith in individual freedoms. Ronald Reagan secured victory in the world's "cold war" and helped free Eastern Europe from Soviet domination. George W. Bush renewed Americans' faith in our nation's ability to respond to foreign threats in the aftermath of 9/11.

I know my examples of presidents displaying courage might not be agreeable to everyone. Even Washington, Madison and Lincoln had their critics. FDR may have leaned toward socialism. Kennedy must bear some morals questions.  Johnson couldn't get us out of an unpopular war. Reagan had his "Contras" and Bush junior his hurricane and the economy. These are just a few examples of courageous presidents displaying actions that were less than courageous. Not one was perfect, yet in my view each, among others, was morally courageous.

Today, I believe that moral courage — deciding to do what is right in spite of the consequences — among our leaders has been replaced with political expediency and the knee- jerk action of blaming someone else. Too often our president and other national leaders have passed on taking courageous action in favor of blaming others or doing only what will help insure re-election.

I along with many Americans wait for another courageous president to emerge.  Will it be the one who occupies the seat or will it be a new face in 2012.  Regardless, our nation longs for morally courageous leadership in the White House and in elected offices across our nation.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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