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Issues of leadership and expediency

I came across an article by Rizwan Ullah in your web service of the Milligazette for Sept 15th 2000. I must admit that I am not clear where Mr. Ullah was headed with this, evidently, first of a series of articles (I cannot "search" your archive db, and so cannot find the follow up pieces).But I feel compelled to make a few clarifications where Mr. Ullah refers to the United States and to leadership in general. 

Mr. Ullah mentions US President Franklin Delanoe Roosevelt. He suggests that the US Constitution was disregarded, or "set aside", to allow Mr. Roosevelt a third and fourth term in office. This is not correct.

The US Constitution did not originally include a rule on term limits for the President. Although a precedent of only two terms was voluntarily established by our first leader; it was not made law until after World War II.
The first American settlers were European's who led a movement to reform Christian religious practice during the late 17th century. Because European monarchs had a long established tie to the first Christian church, the Catholic Church, the challenge to the church was a challenge to these monarchs. Thus they used every legal means at their disposal to silence these reformers. Eventually these reformers chose to quit Europe altogether to avoid such persecution.

Yet even in the far off colonies they continued to suffer economic hardships and restrictions on their own personal freedoms. Oppressive government was still imposed by a far off English king who they neither knew personally nor officially revered. Americans thus developed a common and strongly held revulsion towards the privileges of "high birth" and an abhorrence for arbitrary, unaccountable, long distance, and long term rule.

However, one should keep in mind that Americans value Liberty and Freedom of the individual above all things. Therefore, we do not like to legally proscribe actions, we prefer that people "do the right thing" voluntarily.

One should also keep in mind that all men, no matter how revered, remain simply human, and as prone to errors and failures as you and I. While the Founding Fathers in the US certainly came up with a wonderful first draft of our Constitution, they could not and did not think of everything. Many of the most pressing crisis that our nation has faced were unthinkable and unpredictable back in the under-populated, agrarian colonial backwater that was America in 1776.

The first US president, General George Washington, has become a model of humility and restraint for US leaders. Washington is remembered as "a simple farmer" who rose for a time to lead his equals and then stepped down after a mere two terms to return to his farm. Since his time no US leader has ever claimed a "right to rule" by heritage, intellect, or religious zeal. And every President has sought not to be seen to be enjoying too much privilege and power while they serve as our leader. And every President has made sure not to stay too long in office.

This voluntary pattern of limiting one's own terms was broken only by Franklin Delanoe Roosevelt. However, it was not violated for the purpose of personal gain by FDR. Rather, FDR took office during the Great Depression and he served as our leader through World War Two. His long stay in office was seen by Americans as a necessary departure from past custom. And Roosevelt's stay in office was never officially limited. Instead, FRD served out 4 terms during the worst crisis in American history, and then went home and died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Despite the popularly held view that Roosevelt's stay in office had been a necessary expediency, Congress was reminded of the loop hole that existed in the US constitution. Fortunately, one of the most beneficent qualities of the US Constitution is that it provides for peaceful alteration by the citizens at large (this was also purposely made a difficult undertaking, for obvious reasons of social cohesion and to avoid serious regrets). Thus Congress proposed a law setting term limits and by 1951 each state had ratified the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution, specifically limiting a President to two terms in office. This is the factual correction to Mr. Ullah's reference to the Constitution being ignored for Roosevelt, it was not. The law was not written until after Roosevelt left office.

I would also like to address any similar misunderstanding on the part of Mr. Ullah or any of your readers regarding the Rule of Law in the United States. We do NOT "disregard" or "set-aside" laws, certainly not the primary body of law that is the US Constitution. Please do not misunderstand me... I am not suggesting that Americans are perfect or that our nation functions perfectly at all times. However, please do not be led astray by the self-criticism and introspection of our media, our philosophers and teachers, or our political leaders... it is PRECISELY because the US has such a loud and self-critical body of people - the Press, academics, and ordinary citizens who are free to voice their opinions far and wide, that obvious disregard for our laws is simply not possible.

It is true that there are various political pressures that urge various interpretations of laws, including the Constitution. And while some people might claim that the Constitution has been "violated" at various times, what an outsider might not realize is that they don't really mean "ignored, set-aside, or broken". What they really mean is that, in their interpretation, the original intent of a law has been lost and its "spirit" violated by the lawful and due process of judicial interpretations. In fact, the Constitution itself provides for just such examination, judgment, and remedy if this is truly the case.

When some legal expert or politician feels that a rule has been broken or misrepresented, they are given ample provision to present their case to the courts. And it is important to note that no negative political or criminal repercussions result from this attempt to challenge the government, even if it fails. And if they succeed there are no negative repercussions for the government officials who previously held the contrary views. Rather the exercise of the law is simply either canceled or altered accordingly. However, if citizens suffered unduly from the previous interpretation they may also seek redress from the government.

America is governed by laws and institutions that are approved and administered by their fellow men. And not just a one man, or few, and not at some distant past time. Rather our laws are mutable, albeit slowly and deliberately, by all men (and women) at all times. At no time is any man, or any group with a particular set of ideas, be they political or religious, ever given any special rights under the law or allowed to make or ignore laws at their sole discretion. EVERYONE, even the President is accountable. 

And those occasions in which a government official, like the President, is given ANY leeway, such as the right to pardon citizens convicted of an offense, are expressly listed in the Constitution beforehand. And, most importantly, this body of law was written by the people and may be altered by the people. As the case with the addition of Presidential term limits following Roosevelt confirms.

And lastly, I would like to address the growing portrait of leadership that Mr. Ullah appears to be drawing. In the opening section of this writing, Mr. Ullah seems to suggest that people do not need leaders. He mentions several men, a teacher and a couple of doctors, who simply "did the right thing", "spontaneously", and with out "leaders". I would ask to counter this assertion.

While it may be true that people begin life with a biologic predisposition to certain emotional or mental responses, as a result of their genetic heritage, say a hot temper or a sensitive spirit, most geneticists will admit that a great deal of one's personality is developed over time. We learn from one's exposure to life what to expect and how to react to events. Was your life hard, was it easy, and did you succeed by fighting your fate or by giving in to it? We also learn a great deal by the example and the teachings of our peers, parents, teachers, and figures of importance.

While the importance of one factor or another, genetics, experience, or teaching, might be swayed in one direction or another by culture -I am sure that there are differences from India to the US that affect the equation, but I think it is a bit much to suggest that "people don't need leaders" as by example to the people Mr. Ullah refers to. I am sure that as teachers and doctors these men under went a great deal of training and witnessed the example of many a leader.

In the last section Mr. Ullah suggests that men take to leadership "spontaneously" and he mentions Gandhi, Jenna, Churchill, and Roosevelt as examples of spontaneous leadership. As mentioned above, it is difficult to support the proposition that there are ever any "born" or "natural" leaders. Leadership might be assisted by various predispositions of character, but this is no substitute for education, experience, training, and opportunity. Gandhi was born to the upper class of Indian society and had the privilege to study law in London. Here he met George Bernard Shaw, a renowned author, a socialist, and a Fabian (a particular brand of reserved Liberal). Shaw was a man who approved of the theory of radical Marxism to uplift the conditions of the poor, but he sought a gradual and peaceful reform to these ideals.

One must be careful not to make too much of leadership. Humans are a social animal, we have the instincts of the pack to both strive for leadership or power for ourselves, and/or to accede to and admire such in others. We should always try to retain sight of the human qualities, both good and bad, of our leaders. 

It appears that India and the US share a particular challenge in the clash of the lovely, perhaps naive, ideals of Liberalism and the Rule of Law (Freedom, Equality, and Justice) with the actual reality of poverty and the cultural stresses of religious diversity. Today we are faced with this challenge now on a global scale.

How to marry Western theory with the realities of the (developing) world? Unfortunately, we have been given warning that this will be a difficult task, 9/11 was a wake up call to us all. I certainly hope that we all have leaders that are up to the task.
Sean LaFreniere, Portland, Oregon, US

Editor: Grand ideas become irrelevant in the hands of a system suffering from partiality. For all talk of 'war on terror' US standing worldwide has taken a beating. You cannot have one set of laws for your allies like Israel and another set for foes like Iraq. Israel stockpiles million time more weapons of mass destructions and shows day in and day out its disregard for law and international conventions as the only occupying power in the new century, yet it receives full support of the current incumbent in the White House. In your own country foreigners are being ill-treated every day of the year. Racial, ethnic and religious profiling is the order of the day. The US is behaving like a drunkard and arrogant power, a sure sign it's downhill journey has begun. Tolerance, broad-mindedness and readiness to consider others' points of view are no longer the hallmarks of your culture. 

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