Follow the leader?

“According to my scientific friends, one of our greatest and most glaring deficiencies is the failure of us in this country to give high enough priority to scientific education and to the place of science in our national life,” President Eisenhower said in a nationally televised address in 1957.

What we like about that is that the nation had a president who had intelligent, educated friends and that he listened to them. He was speaking in a time, of course, when the United States was a community, its people skeptical but not cynical, sometimes adversaries but not enemies. The nation’s leaders set different examples in those days. Though of different political parties, they worked together and granted each other the benefit of innumerable doubts and good intentions.

Last weekend, we marked the 47th Earth Day and got a taste of the kind of sense of community it once inspired. It is well to remember that Earth Day began in 1970 in a land that was torn and divided over war. At the time, our people thought things were as bad as they could get. We had no idea.

Earth Day was the idea of Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin. He chose Paul McCloskey, a Republican U.S. House member from California, as co-chair of the steering committee. Members of opposing parties worked together in those days. These days, the congressional dining rooms are having trouble finding customers because of the polarization. Opposing members cannot risk being seen together. Former Harry Reid aide Jim Manley recently told the Washington Post, “The downfall of collegiality in the Senate is symbolized by the lack of members going to the Senate Dining Room.”

Community doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from the heart, but it can be either encouraged or discouraged by leaders.

“Community, of course, is an abstraction—like justice or freedom, faith or morality,” wrote Richard Goodwin, an aide to President Kennedy. “It cannot be imposed by the powerful, resting as it does on our willingness to enact the more spacious and generous qualities of individual nature. But the possibilities of community can be destroyed, aborted by an environment that discourages, even prohibits, a mutuality of interest, a shared responsibility.”

Sound familiar? Leaders can inspire, but far too often they do no such thing. Instead they call on our lesser qualities, pitting us against each other in a fashion that supplies them with offices and authority.

If someone looks for the worst in men, he will surely find it, Lincoln is said to have claimed.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Nowhere is it carved in stone that when a leader calls on our faults and prejudices, we must follow the leader.