For leaders as well as friends, spouses and colleagues, grace is a precious characteristic. Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump’s policy choices, our nation has never had a president more lacking in grace.
Whether or not Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American president, he was certainly its most gracious. Here’s the close of his brief Second Inaugural, delivered toward the end of the Civil War, when the nation was a house divided:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
On the eve of victory, Lincoln avoided triumphalism or crowing. Instead he rejected malice and called for charity. He backed his firmness with both humility (“as God gives us to see the right”) and tenderness (“to care for him who shall have borne the battle”).
Ronald Reagan was usually a model of grace, with a strong preference for gentle humor and a touch of indirection. Asked at 73 if he was too old to be president, Reagan responded: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
At critical moments, Reagan chose understatement and humility, which are part and parcel of grace. A former Democrat, he liked to say, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.” In his final speech at a Republican convention, in 1988, he began: “[B]eing only human, there’s a part of me that would like to take credit for what we’ve achieved. But tonight, before we do anything else, let us remember that tribute really belongs to the 245 million citizens who make up the greatest — and the first — three words in our Constitution: ‘We the People.’ “
In any competitive activity, gracious losers are easy to identify: They give credit to their opponent and never make excuses or blame referees. Because vanquished opponents (and their supporters) often feel horrible, it’s even more important to be a gracious winner, showing respect and admiration after victory, and emphasizing that things could have gone the other way.
The philosopher Avishai Margalit explores the idea of “a decent society,” which avoids one thing above all: humiliating people. Gracious leaders are unfailingly decent. They make people feel large rather than small. In conflicts, they challenge people’s opinions and actions, rather than their identities or their deepest commitments. They enable people to save face. They acknowledge their own errors. They never go for the jugular.
Grace breeds reciprocity. If a friend, a colleague or a spouse is gracious to you, you feel like a creep if you don’t respond in kind. That’s one reason that Reagan was such an effective debater: He disarmed his opponents. Reagan’s grace also helped him to work with committed political adversaries, most notably House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Gracelessness shows bad character, but it is also an obstacle to success and often a recipe for failure. Humiliating people is a terrific way to reduce the likelihood of cooperation. Graceless leaders produce graceless followers and graceless opponents. Gracelessness is stupid, because those who lack grace inflame their adversaries — and turn potential friends into enemies.
Actually, it’s worse than that. We already have disturbing evidence that the election of Trump has produced an increase in xenophobia, stemming from an erosion of social norms that counteract public expression of dislike or hatred of foreigners. It is not unreasonable to speculate that insofar as the president uses violent images or language against members of the press, or against political opponents, he will end up fueling actual violence.
Gracelessness is an absence of grace, but the English language lacks a word for the opposite of grace. One candidate is “ugliness”; another is “cruelty.” Every human heart is drawn, on occasion, to what is ugly and cruel, and even rejoices in them. Prominent Democrats are fully capable of displaying both. Of course, politics is a dirty business, and, as both Lincoln and Reagan knew, you sometimes have to hit back.
But in modern history, no White House has ever been more graceless. Put political differences to one side. That’s a betrayal of our nation’s heritage, and an insult to our deepest traditions.
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Tina Rutter, Twin Falls
WASHINGTON — Across 25 years and five administrations, we have kicked the North Korean can down the road. We are now out of road.
On July 4, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile apparently capable of hitting the United States. As yet, only Alaska. Soon, every American city.
Moreover, Pyongyang claims to have already fitted miniaturized nuclear warheads on intermediate range missiles. Soon, on ICBMs.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s initial reaction to this game changer was not encouraging. “Global action is required to stop a global threat,” he declared.
This, in diplo-speak, is a cry for (multilateral) help. Alas, there will be none. Because, while this is indeed a global threat, there is no such thing as global interests. There are individual national interests and they diverge. In this case, radically.
Take Russia and China. If there’s to be external pressure on North Korea, it would come from them. Will it? On Tuesday, they issued a joint statement proposing a deal: North Korea freezes nuclear and missile testing in return for America abandoning large-scale joint exercises with South Korea.
This is a total nonstarter. The exercises have been the backbone of the U.S.-South Korea alliance for half a century. Abandonment would signal the end of an enduring relationship that stabilizes the region and guarantees South Korean independence. In exchange for what?
A testing freeze? The offer doesn’t even pretend to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program, which has to be our minimal objective. Moreover, we’ve negotiated multiple freezes over the years with Pyongyang. It has violated every one.
The fact that Russia and China would, amid a burning crisis, propose such a dead-on-arrival proposal demonstrates that their real interest is not denuclearization. Their real interest is cutting America down to size by breaking our South Korean alliance and weakening our influence in the Pacific Rim.
These are going to be our partners in solving the crisis?
And yet, relying on China’s good graces appeared to be Donald Trump’s first resort for solving North Korea. Until he declared two weeks ago (by tweet, of course) that China had failed. “At least I know China tried!” he added.
They did? Trump himself tweeted out on Wednesday that Chinese trade with North Korea increased by almost 40 percent in the first quarter, forcing him to acknowledge that the Chinese haven’t been helping.
Indeed not. The latest North Korean missile is menacing not just because of its 4,000-mile range, but because it is road mobile. And the transporter comes from China.
In the calculus of nuclear deterrence, mobility guarantees inviolability. (The enemy cannot find, and therefore cannot pre-empt, a mobile missile.) It’s a huge step forward for Pyongyang. Supplied by Beijing.
How many times must we be taught that Beijing does not share our view of denuclearizing North Korea? It prefers a divided peninsula, i.e., sustaining its client state as a guarantee against a unified Korea (possibly nuclear) allied with the West and sitting on its border.
Nukes assure regime survival. That’s why the Kims have so single-mindedly pursued them. The lessons are clear. Saddam Hussein, no nukes: hanged. Moammar Gadhafi, gave up his nuclear program: killed by his own people. The Kim dynasty, possessing an arsenal of 10-16 bombs: untouched, soon untouchable.
What are our choices? Trump has threatened that if China doesn’t help we’ll have to go it alone. If so, the choice is binary: acquiescence or war.
War is almost unthinkable, given the proximity of the Demilitarized Zone to the 10 million people of Seoul. A mere conventional war would be devastating. And could rapidly go nuclear.
Acquiescence is not unthinkable. After all, we did it when China went nuclear under Mao Zedong, whose regime promptly went insane under the Cultural Revolution.
The hope for a third alternative, getting China to do the dirty work, is mostly wishful thinking. There’s talk of sanctioning other Chinese banks. Will that really change China’s strategic thinking? Bourgeois democracies believe that economics supersedes geostrategy. Maybe for us. But for dictatorships? Rarely.
If we want to decisively alter the strategic balance, we could return U.S. tactical nukes (withdrawn in 1991) to South Korea. Or we could encourage Japan to build a nuclear deterrent of its own. Nothing would get more quick attention from the Chinese. They would face a radically new strategic dilemma: Is preserving North Korea worth a nuclear Japan?
We do have powerful alternatives. But each is dangerous and highly unpredictable. Which is why the most likely ultimate outcome, by far, is acquiescence.