Within a matter of only a few weeks after the Times Square 2020 Ball Drop this past New Year’s, the first of a series of successive crises impacted America’s political, social, and economic institutions.
Covid-19, the first of these misfortunes, began to befall citizens of all ages, though mostly the elderly. Sickness led to self-quarantines; on-again, off-again, on-again mandated mask-wearing; self- and publicly ordered quarantines; and business and school closures. Echoes of the great worldwide flu epidemic of 1918 raised the level of the public’s anxiety, forcing the acceptance of a “new normal” for everyday life.
By spring, the pandemic lockdowns began to ease and it seemed as if there might be some signs of an economic bounce-back—all interrupted by an eruption of protests and civil disorder in a number of American cities sparked by the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. These quickly grew into street revolts across the country.
“The protests that erupted after the incident,” according to Martin Gurri’s impressive essay in the new, Summer 2020 edition of City Journal (on the publication committee of which I serve), “should have appeared familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the world over the last decade.” Around the globe, “an unruly public has been on the march against governments of every description.
“The Covid-19 lockdown was a lid placed on this sociopolitical cauldron” continues Gurri, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst specializing in the relationship of politics and the global media. “Pressure was released explosively, the instant the lid was cracked open.” Crisis.
The unrest, he writes in “Everything Magnified,” resulted from “something bigger and deeper: the tectonic collision between a public empowered by digital platforms and the elites who control the ruling institutions of modern society.”
He attributes the explosion to three phenomena. The first is the persuasive power of the information sphere and the triumph of the image over the printed word there. The second involves the digitally persuaded protesters’ “mind-set,” which is marked by speed and agility, but a lack of depth. It features no agreed-upon proposals designed to achieve ideals, no leadership, and no coherent ideology. Pure negation. Repudiation of the status quo. In short, nihilism.
The third factor, Gurri writes, is the most-inflammatory accelerant—a crisis of authority, borne of the collapse in self-confidence among the country’s ruling elite. He concludes that those supposedly in charge, including elected officeholders, are now spurting authority at a deadly rate, with no tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Our institutions have begun to shake at their core.
Gurri’s proposed remedy is not easy to apply. In the case of the institution of government, voters must replace its officeholding leaders with “competent grownups.” It requires a serious examination of conscience. Recognition of this failure, essentially a moral failure, dictates a serious renewal of civic responsibility.
We at The Giving Review have twice recently highlighted an interview given by Dwight Eisenhower to Walter Cronkite on the 20th anniversary of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. Part of a CBS Reports special, they spoke amongst the rows and rows of tombstones in the cemeteries on the ground above Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.[caption id="attachment_72543" align="alignnone" width="500"] Walter Cronkite and Dwight Eisenhower at Normandy, 1964 (YouTube)[/caption]
Amidst the rows upon rows of stones, Eisenhower was reminded of his own son and the meaning of that day. “My mind goes back so often to this fact: on D-Day, my own son graduated from West Point,” he said, almost soothingly (starting at about 1:15.15 into the YouTube video of the program).
And after his training with his division, he came over with the 71st Division, but that was some time after this event. But on the very day he was graduating, these men came here—British, and our other allies, and Americans—to storm these beaches for one purpose only: not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom, systems of self-government in the world. Many thousands of men have died for ideals such as these. And here again, in the 20th Century, for the second time, Americans—along with the rest of the field, but Americans—had to come across the ocean to defend those values.
I devoutly hope we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope, pray, that humanity will have learned more than we had learned up until that time. But these people gave us a chance, and they bought time for us, so that we can do better than we have before.
No doubt the memory of Eisenhower’s extraordinary life of dignified service to his fellow citizens and country is beginning to fade—especially in an era that devalues the kind of leadership he offered and the responsibility with which he exercised it. He increased the democratic capital and trust quotient of our democratic institutions.
Ike’s the kind of calm, competent grownup for which Gurri pines, and for which he urges us to yearn, too.In a recent insightful piece for The American Interest, “Why America Liked Ike,” Michael Mandelbaum notes, “It is difficult to imagine a more vivid example of the sense of responsibility and accountability that all leaders, especially in a democracy, should display but that not all of them do, than Eisenhower’s approach to D-Day.” He draws from the new How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions, written by his granddaughter Susan Eisenhower. The book stands as a challenge to our elite here and now.
“From her account of her grandfather’s military and political career, one particular trait stands out,” Mandelbaum writes.
Dwight Eisenhower was not a shy or self-effacing person: no one without robust self-confidence could have done what he did. The purpose of what he did was not, however, to gain fame or glory. He did not lust for the public spotlight. He did not take credit for what he regarded as the accomplishments of others. Self-promotion was decidedly not part of his personality. He refused the nation’s highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor, on the grounds that “the award was given for extraordinary valor in combat, and he thought it inappropriate for someone not facing the peril to accept it.”
Indeed, there is little doubt that the country’s politics, customs, and values are in a different place than the World War II years and those immediately following. Being like Ike would be no easy mission for anyone at any time, much less during these difficult days of 2020. But he’s the kind of competent grownup for which Gurri rightly pines, and who exhibited the kind of responsibility and accountability that Mandelbaum properly lauds. Self-confident, without self-promotion.
Unelected people in philanthropy—donors and foundation presidents, board members, and staff alike—can and should, even now, look to Ike for lessons on the right way to live out your personal and professional responsibilities, and how a life well lived can be of service to others. We should all yearn such, for ourselves and leaders of all our institutions.