2016 Needs a President Our Grandchildren Can Admire

America’s next leader must combine a sense of urgency and solemn, high seriousness.

“The Prayer at Valley Forge," Arnold Friberg, was painted for the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 and hangs in the Congressional Prayer Room.

By Jason Scott Jones Published on June 2, 2015

Our culture longs for superheroes because our country lacks leadership. So we flock to see Ironman, or binge-watch Daredevil, to console and distract ourselves. Through most of our history, we educated our young people on epics and ancient chronicles, chivalric ballads and tales of saints. Real liberal arts education starts with stories, of Achilles’ passion for glory and Hector’s love of home; of Aeneas’ selfless sacrifice both for his ancestors and his descendants; of Moses’s fear of the Lord and Jesus’ tenderness toward the weak.

Our greatest leaders were men who’d modeled their lives on exemplars from the past, real or imagined. George Washington grew up on the struggles of the Roman Republic and the maxims of Stoic philosophy. He used these to hone himself into the “indispensable man” who could unify the squabbling colonies and corral its ragtag army through countless lopsided defeats and the snows of Valley Forge. His ancient attachment to freedom quashed the temptation to silence our Republic’s infant chaos with a military dictatorship — a lure that revolutionary leaders across South America succumbed to, with tragic results. Generations of young Americans in turn looked to Washington as a kind of civic saint, a Cincinnatus who left the plow, took up the sword to serve his homeland, then sheathed it and practiced peace.

Do we even know who Bill Clinton modeled himself on? Would we hold him up to our children as an example? “You too, son, can become a charming, unprincipled rogue who repeatedly gets away with it, retire to run a massive ‘charitable’ foundation, and scheme for your wife to take power. You just have to set your mind to it.”

Republicans are not immune to similar skepticism. If I could face a gathering of this year’s presidential contenders — let’s say that Fox News went crazy and made me the moderator of a debate — I would indeed ask them questions. But they wouldn’t be the nitpicky, policy-wonk inquiries that Beltway journalists cobble together. The times are much too serious for those. Our next president must be someone who grasps the many threats to our principles and interests, and is driven by a deep, personal passion to defend them. We must demand more from a national leader than the memorized factoids of the champion high school debater, or the eloquent evasions of the 60-year-old student council ex-president.

Around the world, Christians are targets of genocide to radical Muslims in government and secretive cells who hide in the West’s great cities. Here at home, the freedom of churches to preach and practice biblical Christianity is being targeted by elites — from the Solicitor General of the United States, to billion-dollar corporations strong-arming state legislatures. Regimes ruling half the world and its people, such as Russia and China, now scoff that the liberal democratic “moment” has already past, that American values have been tried and found defective. Shattered families are miring another generation in what seems like permanent poverty. Bureaucrats, judges, and presidents collude to rule outside the law. Our terror of terrorism makes some of us desperate to trade our liberties for a few more months of safety.

The world is on fire.

Reagan went from “Crackpot” to “Statesman,” without ever changing.

It has become a cliché among Republicans to say that we need another Reagan, but we’d do well to ask exactly why such a controversial figure, on whom elites and the media poured out Niagaras of vitriol and mockery, became our era’s most successful president.

It certainly wasn’t because he let professional political consultants annex his public and private life, and tailor his every statement to suit the demands of different constituencies. He didn’t wait to hear what the experts from Harvard or the World Bank thought before he offered his opinion. He had formed his ideas through deep, sympathetic reading of American history and political philosophy, and the core texts of real economics. He had seen, first-hand in Hollywood, the ruthlessness and mindlessness at the heart of Communism. He had worried as the Soviet Union tried to compensate for domestic misery with international expansion, pouring every ruble into new missiles that could reach our cities, and new revolutions in vulnerable countries. He had witnessed as California governor the power of heavy taxes and wasteful spending to strangle a thriving economy and lock millions into dependency. He came to grasp how abortion, an issue on which he’d once compromised himself, had coarsened the soul and bloodied the conscience of America.

Reagan viewed all these seemingly disparate facts through a lens that revealed their hidden connections: A love of ordered liberty, of a freedom that’s made possible because our citizens discipline themselves. The free market demands that they work hard and serve each others’ needs. The law exists to protect their fundamental human rights, not to wipe their noses. And foreign enemies who seek to advance their alien systems of tyranny ever closer to our borders deserve neither our sympathy nor our mercy. They must be resisted, inch by inch — as our own government must be resisted, when it oversteps its due limits.

It was vision this clear that gave Reagan the courage to denounce the “Evil Empire” in the teeth of snickering Sovietologists — and offer hope to men who were already brave, like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. To publish, as president, a book like Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation, calling out the fundamental evil which our highest court had smuggled into our country’s Constitution. To make tough tax and budget choices despite a mostly hostile Congress, and wait out the drastic recession which he knew must precede a real recovery.

I would ask each of this year’s candidates:

  • What is your epic vision?
  • What single, truthful principle will guide your decisions?
  • Would you refuse to compromise on it if the press, and Congress, and even your own party turned against you?
  • How does that core principle organize and make sense of all your policy ideas?
  • How would you defend it against skeptics?
  • Do all your key campaign personnel understand this principle, and share it?
  • What are the names of large-scale donors whom you have been willing to alienate by standing firm on this principle?

The man or woman who honestly and powerfully answers such questions deserves to hold the reins of power. When I think about who should be president, I ask myself: “Which of these people would I want my grandchildren reading about, and remembering to emulate?” That sense of governing today with history in mind is the high seriousness that must guide a successful leader in chaotic times like these. I hope that amidst the hype, the chatter, the “gotchas” and the mega-Tweets, that the person of vision emerges — and that we voters have eyes to see.

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