Moral Leadership On Capitol Hill

What is moral leadership? Does it exist in contemporary politics? Is Washington the place to find it in this age of spin, damage control, plausible deniability, no controlling legal authority, and stonewalling?

None of these questions is new. Around the turn of the century journalists, muckrakers, and mugwumps complained about the corruption of American institutions. Four best-selling books, Ida Tarbell’s History of Standard Oil of New Jersey, Lincoln Steffens’s Shame of the Cities, Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle produced the public outrage that ushered in an age of reform.

Tarbell told of how uncontrolled and unregulated monopolies undermine free markets. Her attack on John D. Rockefeller and how he built his empire brought forth a surge of “trust busting” and antitrust laws that are still with us. The legal brief in which Attorney General Janet Reno recites the government’s beef with Bill Gates reads like an excerpt from Tarbell’s book.

Rockefeller, though he lost in court, may yet be acquitted before the bar of history because of the truth of his claim that all he ever intended was to make and give away as much money as possible. Gates has met John D.’s first objective. Look for the second act, still in coming attractions, to speed into production as the case goes to court.

Sinclair’s book led to federally imposed meat inspections. He was to consumer protection advocates what Rachel Carson became to environmentalists when her book Silent Spring was published a generation ago. While both movements certainly had their excesses, no one seriously argues that the nation should go back to doing business the way it was conducted before. Sinclair and Carson were moral leaders.

Steffens and Riis were, too. Steffens described the corruption, bribery, voter fraud, payroll padding, and other misuses of public funds that characterized much of municipal government during the “Gilded Age.” Riis told of life in the tenements, industrial accidents, crowded sweatshops, and exploitative child labor. Their works hastened change. They also found a leader to take their crusade nationwide.

His was Theodore Roosevelt. Then the young police commissioner of New York City, famous for reducing corruption within the force and crime on the streets, Roosevelt enacted much of the “progressive” program as president. What he was unable to finish was completed by his imitator and rival, Woodrow Wilson.

These leaders and their counterparts in the states and in Congress—Robert LaFollette, Albert Beveridge, George Norris, Hiram Johnson, Calvin Coolidge (as governor), Fiorella LaGuardia, and others—elevated the nature of political discourse. Nothing could excite vigorous debate between Roosevelt and Wilson more than the charge that the other was better able to assert moral leadership. Both were men of faith, whose devotion convinced them that they were in the right and gave them the fortitude to carry on.

Such has been the case with most successful American presidents. Presiding over the nation during its most trying times, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt each in their own way came to terms with God and the special purpose he had for this nation.

Both found their way to God late in their careers. Lincoln, the political operative who spent years in the service of his legal clients and in pursuit of a string of political posts, came to regard the Civil War as God’s punishment for the original sin of the nation’s founding: chattel slavery. He found it odd that Confederates would ask God’s assistance in continuing to wring “their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” He said in his second inaugural address that as much as he sought an end to the war, if God willed it to continue “until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid with another drawn by the sword,” the judgments of the Lord remain “true and righteous altogether.” Lincoln spurned Southern offers to exchange peace for retraction of the Emancipation Proclamation. “I should be damned in time and eternity,” he said—this from a man who said at the war’s outset that his only objective was to save the Union.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the young, rich playboy called the “feather duster” by Al Smith’s advisers, rose to unprecedented eloquence when he led the nation in prayer at the onset of the Normandy invasion:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness to their faith. . . .

Fifty years later, one of the youngest heroes of that war, George H.W. Bush, recited those words almost from memory to an international assembly of young leaders. The emotion in his voice suggested that Bush, as a young naval officer in the Pacific, was among the many sons of the nation listening to their commander in chief over a short-wave radio.

Few of the current president’s most partisan defenders seriously argue that the presidency today remains, as Franklin Roosevelt described it, “preeminently a place of moral leadership.” They insist that just as previous presidents—including FDR—achieved greatness despite their character flaws, none of the present occupant’s personal defects affect his performance. While others rose above private failings in the pursuit of moral ends, they cheer their champion as he uses his public office to hide personal indiscretions.

Leaving aside whether character deficiencies in previous presidents were similar in kind to those the present president demonstrates, those seeking to defend him by sullying the reputations of his predecessors may have done him a disservice: In making FDR, Eisenhower, Cleveland, Jefferson, and Jackson Clinton’s moral equal, they have lessened the moral authority of his office.

Presidents who have made effective use of Teddy Roosevelt’s favored “bully pulpit” found that in order to succeed they first had to be believed. In LBJ’s day, this disconnect was called the “credibility gap.” A famous Jules Feiffer cartoon of the period had the president wandering from citizen to citizen in search of someone who believed him. When a little boy said that he believed him, LBJ put on his glasses and read from a prepared text. Today they would call that “staying on message” or “spin.”

With the presidency diminished as a force for moral leadership, what can be said of Congress? Like all legislative bodies it can only be as good as its members. Some will always exert greater influence in it and over it than others. How are they to be assessed?

In his famous book on the subject, Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy sought to judge them by the courage they displayed in office. He defined courage as the ability to go against the wishes of those one represents. He told of six United States senators who put their own “judgment,” as Edmund Burke would have used the term, ahead of the wishes of their constituents. Some survived; others suffered for their actions.

Kennedy did not pause to consider whether it was the constituents who were in the right and the senator the short-sighted, obstinate one. Why should Massachusetts have been grateful when its young Senator John Quincy Adams supported policies that proved ineffective and ruinous to New England shipping? Would racial harmony and equal justice under law been better served by removing Andrew Johnson from office, which Edmund Ross’s deciding vote prevented? Anyone who believes in a universal standard of civilized behavior would rightly be appalled at Robert Taft’s opposition to the Nuremberg trials “on principle.”

Kennedy’s single standard did not allow senators to show courage by standing with their constituencies against an opposed national consensus. When an older John Quincy Adams brought the House of Representatives to a standstill while pressing the case of slaves, runaways, and abolitionists, his constituents cheered him on. Kennedy’s younger brother Edward’s “sail against the wind” stance against Carter and Reagan budget cutters, Clintonian “triangulators,” and Gingrichian revolutionaries played well in Massachusetts. Can stances such as theirs be called “moral leadership?” Sometimes, but not always.

Courage, while a necessary component for moral leadership, is not enough. Truth must be on its side. A consistent voting pattern shows a leader to be tenacious in his opinions, but tenacity divorced from the truth is devilish, not great moral leadership. Lincoln was a great moral leader because he wedded courage with right principles. Teddy Kennedy is consistent but never questions his rational premises. How is truth determined? Certainly not by substituting one’s own sense of moral correctness with vanity poll results and focus groups. Yet the temptation to do so is often irresistible in legislative chambers where every congressman sees in the mirror a senator, while senators looking into mirrors behold a president. Those who met the ultimate test began their search for the truth by searching their own souls. Lincoln and Roosevelt, almost a century apart, came to it through faith.

Anyone interested in how moral leadership can assert itself in Congress will learn much from the career of New Jersey Representative Chris Smith. He has attracted considerable media attention as of late—most of it negative—by using his base of operation in the U.S. House to seek guarantees that any public funds that leave American shores are not used to support or promote abortion. The intensity of the storm that surrounds him is directly proportional to his effectiveness. Since December 1997 the storm has achieved hurricane status.

Toward the end of last year, Congressional Quarterly ran Smith’s photo on its cover below a headline that read “Making A Difference: CQ Profiles a Dozen People Who Shaped Congress’ Legislative Record in 1997.” The accompanying story put Smith in the same league with Senators Ted Kennedy, Jesse Helms, and John McCain. Smith won this distinction when he blocked payments to the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund because they lacked the antiabortion provisions he had sought. His action stopped in its tracks a much hailed-arrangement the Washington establishment had carefully crafted.

The Wall Street Journal surveyed the wreckage:

Here’s a partial list of the people Rep. Christopher Smith has frustrated and/or infuriated lately: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms; Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin; Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott; UN Secretary General Kofi Annan; and President Clinton.

David only had one Goliath.

Smith struck again the following May, inserting language banning U.S. funding of overseas abortions into a $13 billion foreign aid bill that included $819 million in “back dues” to the United Nations. His action forced President Clinton to choose between accepting language (which had been law during the Reagan and Bush years) unacceptable to his abortion rights supporters or killing a deal he very much wanted to conclude with UN officials.

While Smith’s critics were quick to accuse him of trying to undermine the UN by inserting proposals unacceptable to the president, right-to-life advocates were far from universal in their praise. Those who opposed increased UN payments on other grounds did not think Smith’s wording sufficient cause to change their views.

Much like the man in the Kipling poem “IF” who “kept his head while all about him were losing theirs,” Smith remained serene and in good humor throughout. “When I think about all the dissidents I have met who have been tortured and seen their loved ones tortured—Richard Wurmbrand, the Orthodox priest in Romania, Yuli Kosharovsky, the Jewish refusnik I adopted when I was in Moscow, Harry Wu, Bishop Su in China, Solzhenitsyn, and all the others—how can I get worked up when I get a bad editorial?” he says.

He has also reached the stage in life where he is able to check his ego at the door—a most unusual event in Congress. He credits his wife and children as well as sports for teaching him persistence, humility, and generosity. When asked which historical figures he most revered, he cites only two: William Wilberforce, who led the movement in Parliament that abolished slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s, and General George C. Marshall. “The other generals got the welcome home parades,” Smith says. “Marshall put together the plan that won the war.”

Smith’s profound faith has given him the strength to persevere. Believing himself to be in the right, he has used his increased seniority in the House to protect the rights of the unborn in every possible forum, using every parliamentary maneuver at his command to achieve his objectives. He learned many lessons when he watched lopsided Democratic majorities in the House assert their will.

Yet all of his actions have been openly undertaken and conform to House rules. Believing that truth will always emerge in honest debate, Smith has aggressively taken the battle to his opponents. He senses their discomfort in having to defend practices such as partial birth abortion, and likens the success of that issue to an “Inchon landing” for the pro-life movement. Debate on partial birth abortion, says Smith, has forever shattered the myth that abortion is anything other than an act of violence against the weakest segment of the human species.

Smith believes the controversy lifted the shroud of secrecy that has enabled the pro-abortion elements to achieve their ends, quietly using a favorable bureaucratic ruling here or a change in guidelines there. Smith sees this process still at work at the United Nations, citing the expansion of the World Health Organization’s immunization program to include “inoculation against pregnancy.” He recognizes the difference between contraception and abortion, but fears coercion by the dictators who head many of the countries in which the WHO operates.

He accuses private voluntary organizations that receive public funds of lobbying foreign parliaments to change (“liberalize”) their nation’s abortion laws. He questions UN priorities that allow for abortion clinics in every refugee camp under its jurisdiction and decries the chemical abortions the UN allowed in Rwanda. Applauding the work that the WHO has done to eradicate disease throughout the world, he feels the organization has compromised that good work by advocating abortion. Smith is not about to let that happen.

Smith’s detractors, who routinely dismiss him as nothing more than a one issue politician, have been strangely quiet on those occasions when Smith has strayed from Republican and conservative orthodoxy. He antagonized the defense industry when he opposed the use of federal funds to subsidize mergers in the industry, calling them “payoffs for layoffs.” Smith sided with big labor against big business when he weighed in against “fast track.” He broke with big business again when he embraced legislation that would impose economic sanctions against nations that persecute people for their religious beliefs. He angered party leaders when he resisted reducing Medicare funding to help pay for deficit reduction, and has stopped the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency from banning certain kinds of asthma inhalers until safe, effective, and easily affordable alternatives are available. (Two of Smith’s children suffer from asthma.)

His greatest achievement during his nine terms in the House, however, may be his work to free religious and political prisoners, assist refugees, and reduce violence against children—whether through exploitation, slavery, or prostitution.

When he expounds on these issues one hears in Chris Smith’s voice the passion of a Jacob Riis or a Lincoln Steffens or a Teddy Roosevelt.

The intensity with which his opponents savage him for his efforts in one area and the silence with which they greet his successes in so many others suggest that they understand that Smith is not just a one-issue congressman, but the exponent of a clear and consistent philosophy. That philosophy can be defined by a single word: “community.” To Smith community means more than commonality of interest like a “banking community” or an “arts community.” It suggests a society in which disparate elements form a common whole and in which the strongest look out for the weakest.

Smith insists that what he seeks to do is to extend to the unborn the protections society grants to others. Withdrawing rights from this group is the first step in a chain of events that will put the rights of other weaker entities at risk. He cites increasingly common and routinely accepted acts of violence against the aged, women, children, and the infirm as evidence to prove his case.

Robert Kennedy once observed that “moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle. . . .” Chris Smith has it in spades. “So, in defining moral leadership, you would accept Andrew Jackson’s adage that ‘One man in the right makes a majority?’ Chris Smith was recently asked. “One man in the right—with God on his side—makes a majority,” he answered.


  • Alvin S. Felzenberg

    Alvin S. Felzenberg is an American presidential historian, political commentator, and public official. He was Principal Spokesman for the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission. Felzenberg is currently Director of Communications for the Joint Economic Committee for the United States Congress.

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