When the question was put to Mr. Mandela in an interview for this obituary in 2007 — after such barbarous torment, how do you keep hatred in check? — his answer was almost dismissive: Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.
I think presidents should be allowed a lot more free time than they are allowed for the very reason Woodrow Wilson explains in Scott Berg’s new book about him:
“Each stroke requires your whole attention and seems the most important thing in life,” he wrote Edith Reid that summer. “I can by that means get perfect diversion of my thoughts for an hour or so at the same time that I am breathing the pure out-of-doors.”
We all need time to escape so that we might be smarter when we return from the mini-vacation. We know this about ourselves, yet we don’t really allow it of our presidents. They golf and they’re ridiculed for it. But Wilson had so much more time and was so much more free than our current presidents who can’t vacation much, can’t go out to eat dinner, can’t keep a journal, and can’t walk or drive. Still, Wilson was the one who said “there are glorious moments when I forget for a minute that I am president.” Probably why the job essentially killed him.
“We did not agree in all things,he later said of his colleagues, “but we did in some, and those we pulled at together. That was my first lesson in real politics. . . . If you are cast on a desert island with only a screwdriver, a hatchet, and a chisel to make a boat with, why, go make the best one you can. It would be better if you had a saw, but you haven’t. So with men.”
"Our political debates too often bear little or no relation to the actual problems the United States faces." — JFK talking about Twitter 40 years before it was created.
President Obama would surely like to give this speech today. Any president would and then they’d be blamed for sounding like complainers. It would be hard for a president to give such a speech making the obvious case for rational approaches. He would be called professorial. He would be accused of labeling the opposition as users of cliches, when the opposition was merely pointing out what anyone could see were obvious flaws in his program.
Kennedy’s most famous line from this speech is this one: “the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”
My favorite line may be this one though: “If there is any current trend toward meeting present problems with old cliches, this is the moment to stop it—before it lands us all in a bog of sterile acrimony.”
Fifty years later we’re so deep in that bog, it presses just below our eyeballs.