The tall gaunt man in the black suit wore a weary smile.
A neighbor from back home in Springfield had just asked him what it felt like to be president.
Abraham Lincoln chuckled.
“Well,” he told him, “it reminds me of the story about the man who was once tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. When asked what that was like, he replied, ‘If it wasn’t for the honor of the thing, I’d just as soon have walked’”.
Lincoln, in his own inimitable way, expressed a sentiment shared by many of his elite colleagues.
“With me,” remarked James Polk, “it is exceptionally true that the presidency is no bed of roses”. His health ruined by its demands, he died three months after leaving the White House. He was 53.
“As to the presidency,” wrote Martin Van Buren, “the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it”.
Lyndon Johnson, who compared being president to “a jackass standing in a hail storm – you’ve just got to stand there and take it,” conceded its impact:
“The presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands”
Thomas Jefferson called the presidency “a splendid misery” and observed:
“No man will ever carry out of the presidency the reputation which carried him into it”.
Following the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco in the first months of his presidency, JFK acknowledged his responsibility. Invoking an ancient proverb, he ruefully commented, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan”.
A week from now, Donald J. Trump of New York, the only man in history to assume the Presidency of the United States without either political or military experience, will officially take the same oath once spoken by Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson.
This “glorious burden” has broken strong men and destroyed without mercy weak ones.
History is an unremitting judge.
Ask Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan, failed presidents who froze in the face of a moral and political tsunami they neither understood nor could control. Ask Hoover, whose fate is forever inextricably linked to the Great Depression.
LBJ’s Great Society – and reputation – were savaged by Vietnam. Wilson’s League of Nation’s was rejected, crippling the proud man’s health and crushing his spirit. Richard Nixon, who went to China and the Soviet Union in breathtaking strokes of foreign policy genius, will be forever remembered by school children as the one president forced to resign in disgrace amidst historic scandals.
George H.W. Bush, triumphant in Desert Storm, was defeated for re-election by the voters’ perception of an out-of-touch indifference to economic problems.
Even FDR faced rebuke for foolishly and arrogantly trying to pack the Supreme Court. Truman didn’t know about the atomic bomb when he suddenly assumed office in the midst of World War II. He and he alone made the decision to drop it on Japan.
For a new president humble enough to listen, the voices of the past cry out from beyond the grave about the unforeseen challenges and pitfalls awaiting every new leader. A president ignores those lessons at his own peril.
Humility doesn’t appear to be Mr. Trump’s greatest virtue. He’d do well to consider a leadership example from 3,000 years ago.
When his father, Israel’s greatest king, died Solomon knew he had big sandals to fill. The new king conducted his own inauguration. He assembled the nation’s leaders – military, legal and political and led them to God’s holy Tabernacle in Gibeon. There he and the leaders worshiped God, seeking his blessing upon the new reign. Solomon made 1,000 burnt offerings (II Chronicles 1: 2-6).
That night, God appeared to King Solomon.
“Ask what I should give thee,” God told him (II Chronicles 1:7, KJV).
What would the average American politician ask for if he knew God would give him anything?
Power, success, popularity, a great legacy? A landslide re-election? A place on Mount Rushmore?
Solomon asked God for wisdom and knowledge. Correct information and the skill to apply it with discernment. Some leaders may be smart, well-informed and quick witted. But they still can make costly mistakes. Solomon was humble enough to confess his own limitations in the face of his overwhelming challenges.
“Who can judge this thy people, that is so great?” (verse 10, KJV).
The smartest leader can stumble and fall without wisdom. Wisdom – knowledge tempered by judgment – is a God thing and the good leader will have the integrity and character to seek God’s help.
Solomon did and God granted his request – and blessed his reign.
Lincoln plainly conceded that he had not controlled events but events had controlled him.
“I have been driven many times upon my knees,” he told a friend, “by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”
When he moved into the newly-built White House in 1800, John Adams offered a prayer in a letter to his wife Abigail. FDR had it engraved on the stone fire place in the State Dining Room.
“I pray to heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
King Solomon would say “Amen”.
Let this be our prayer on the eve of a new administration.