Jewish World Review April 20, 2010 / 6 Iyar, 5770
Listening and Telling the Truth
By Paul Johnson
But a leader must know the truth, however awful, even if in wartime, for instance he cannot divulge it. Winston Churchill blamed himself for not knowing because he did not take the necessary steps to find out the extent of Singapore's military weakness. The ignominious fall of that military base to the Japanese in 1942 came as one of the biggest shocks in the history of the British Empire.
Not knowing is often the result of not listening to those who do know. If Mr. Obama were to listen harder, not just occasionally but as a matter of ingrained habit, he'd have no illusions about what his health care plan is going to cost or the ramifications of those costs for individuals and the economy.
Listening carefully and telling the truth are each rare traits to be found in politicians, and rarer still in combination. But it does happen. George Washington listened all his life because he loved to learn and because he had no overwhelming desire to speak, unlike most of those in public life. One passion a leader should forgo, if possible, is a love affair with his own voice (and here even Winston Churchill fell below the mark). Washington, happily, liked the sound of his own silence. He also told the truth, even if at times he followed Edmund Burke's advice and was economical with it. When I was writing my book George Washington, I failed to come across any occasion when he had deliberately concealed the truth from anyone who had a right to know it.
One President who admirably combined taciturnity and veracity was Calvin Coolidge, that unobtrusive and so underrated man. He was aptly called "Silent Cal." He listened courteously to all his visitors but would not be drawn out. He said: "Nine-tenths of a President's callers at the White House want something they ought not to have. If you keep dead still they will run down in three or four minutes."
So Coolidge would remain mute. Slight twitches of his facial muscles spoke for him. He was described as "an eloquent listener." When he did speak, however, it was the truth. He told his countrymen that the business of America is business but that "it rests squarely on the law of service." And that, in turn, had its "main reliance [on] truth and faith and justice."
Every American, each in his or her role, has to save the others by telling the truth, keeping faith and applying strict justice. That is a message worth giving and hearing but not one we hear much nowadays.
If we turn to Abraham Lincoln we find a marked combination of listening and truth-telling. Lincoln listened hard, no easy matter in the deafening cacophony of voices just before and during the Civil War.
Considering all he had to do and say, Lincoln spoke amazingly little. As he put it (on Aug. 6, 1862), "I am very little inclined on any occasion to say anything unless I hope to produce some good by it." His Gettysburg Address is a classic instance there is none better in history of using as few words as possible (261, to be precise) while conveying a powerful message.
Lincoln always endeavored to tell the truth and to ensure that all heard it by clothing it in arresting language. He never won a vote or scored a political advantage by even the most minute sacrifice of factual accuracy. He believed rightly that people would rise to a challenge, however daunting, provided they were convinced the leadership was being honest.
Ronald Reagan, another notable President, also showed himself ready to listen, even though he didn't always hear. And he carefully studied a speaker's body language. Reagan believed that national leaders were too eager to avoid trouble and therefore toned down the truth. He rated his best speeches as those in which he spoke the unvarnished truth notably his "Evil Empire" discourse. He personally strengthened its truth element just before delivery.
The world always needs the twin capacities of listening and truth-speaking. The signs point to our being on the eve of high drama in the Middle East, where few listen and most lie. Who involved will set the example of listening with care, then distilling and delivering the truth of what he hears?
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Eminent British historian and author Paul Johnson's latest book is "American Presidents Eminent Lives Boxed Set: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant". Comment by clicking here.
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© 2009, Paul Johnson