In Search of Courage

In 1964, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater ran for president with the slogan: “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Without too much hesitation, the electorate deemed the so-called father of the conservative movement a crazy lunatic who was not fit to be president, and handed Lyndon B. Johnson a landslide victory of historic proportions. As Democrats near the 2006 midterm elections, they are stuck wondering what secret formula is needed to regain a grip hold on the national electorate. Centrists from both parties have argued for decades that there is a middle ground in American politics that the public yearns for their leaders to meet upon. While I do not disagree with this principle, I also believe that the American people reward candidates who are willing to take risks and follow their gut instincts about the issues that shape debate on Capitol Hill. Perhaps it falls in line with the frontier spirit that has historically been essential to the American way of life that Americans respect people who listen to their hearts, regardless of where that may lead. Ironically enough, of the hundreds of politicians who routinely bicker on television from their hideouts on Capitol Hill, there are no conspicuous leaders of this country to be found. There is nobody in this country who is so certain about his core beliefs that he is willing to challenge Americans to join in his cause. Twenty-five years ago, Ronald Reagan was certain that the Cold War could be won, and required Americans to stand fast by his tough rhetoric so that one day the Iron Curtain would crumble. Forty-five years ago, John F. Kennedy electrified a nation when he asked the American people what they could give to the country so that we as a people could reach heights we had never reached before. The term “reach for the stars” never had a clearer meaning than when President Kennedy publicly announced that an American would reach the moon by the end of the decade. Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon in 1969 remains even today as one of the greatest accomplishments of the American people. President Kennedy and President Reagan did not orate this way simply to win votes. Certainly the tough rhetoric against the Soviet Union that defined their presidencies was politically necessary during the Cold War, but these two men truly believed that they could push the American people past the complacency of their own concerns to some kind of common goal. That’s what leadership is. Leaders don’t stand on soapboxes and instill fear in order to secure a following. Leaders believe in something from the bottom of their hearts, and they are able to use their skills to push a group of people to un-chartered territory. It is easy to invoke politicians with their grandiose rhetoric in a discussion about leadership, which is why it is important to also discuss leaders from a different area of life, such as sports. For the 1980 Winter Olympics, U.S. men’s hockey coach Herb Brooks chose a team of amateurs to compete against the world’s best. From the beginning, he told his team that their goal was not just to play the best, but to beat the best too. He was tough on his players, and at times they hated him, but underneath all of the tenacity was a respect for his players and what they could achieve once they reached their potential. The top hockey team of that era was indisputable; the professional Soviet skaters hadn’t lost an international match since 1960, and many of their players were in the prime of their careers when they faced off for the 1980 Olympics. In an exhibition match played shortly before the opening ceremonies, the Soviet team annihilated the Americans by a score of 10-3. This game was no fluke. Many considered this to be the difference in skill and talent between the American and Soviet squads. Nonetheless, Herb Brooks still believed in his team. In the semifinal round of the tournament, Team USA shocked the world by beating the Soviets 4-3 in a game that is now known as “The Miracle on Ice.” This game may have shattered the predictions of hockey fans across the globe, but for Herb Brooks, this victory came as no surprise at all. He believed that he had a gifted group of individuals who, regardless of the skill they showed on any given day, could be a great squad. The Herb Brookses, the Ronald Reagans and the John F. Kennedys come into public life very rarely. Right now, the halls of Congress are filled with people (Republicans and Democrats alike) who pander to the Religious Right or the far Left or and other constituencies that they believe will make their voters happy and help them raise money for upcoming reelection campaigns. The American people deserve a candidate for the presidency of this country who believes not that they can manage America better than their opponent can, but somebody who has a gutsy vision of what America can be, and has the leadership to make it happen. We don’t need a candidate who has all the right answers (a la Al Gore), nor do we need a candidate who has all the right slogans (a la George W. Bush as a compassionate conservative). What we need is someone bold enough to declare their vision of what the American people can become, and powerful enough to push his countrymen towards that goal. The time has come for a leader to emerge who is true to himself, true to his vision of the country, and courageous enough to make the American people accountable for the dream.