The Old Testament Book of Esther describes a turning point in the story of the Jewish people held in captivity, where Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, challenges Esther, who by this time was chosen as the pagan king’s new queen. If she so chose, she could live a life of indulgence while her people suffered. Mordecai warned her of the gravity of the moment in which she found herself:
Mordecai sent back this reply to Esther: “Don’t think for a moment that you will escape there in the palace when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. What’s more, who can say but that you have been elevated to the palace for just such a time as this?”
Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will do the same. And then, though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I am willing to die.” ~ Esther 4:13-16
The question I find I’m asking myself as I watch the GOP candidates for president slog their way across Iowa, New Hampshire and now South Carolina, which holds its primary next Saturday, is “Are either of them elevated for just such a time as this?”
Speaking for myself, I wonder if these men are big enough, yet humble enough, for the moment.
I believe this is the most consequential presidential election of my lifetime. The world is in the midst of a grave economic crisis, the threats of transnational terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are real for all nations and, more specifically, our nation is facing crushing debt which now exceeds our gross domestic product, and a generation of decline where our children and grandchildren will not have better lives than our own.
When we examine our history, we have had men and women who rose to the occasion, and did extraordinary things in extraordinary times. In my opinion, the convergence of so many people of exceptional vision, courage and wisdom on the American continent in the 18th century was providential, and their act of rebellion against the greatest empire of its day changed the world.
Of note, these were not “old” men, as we tend to think of them. The average age of America’s founding fathers in 1776 was 43.8 years. Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was 33. James Madison, who would go on to become the “father of the Constitution” eleven years later, was 26.
The average age of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was 42, and four of the most influential – Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, Gouvernor Morris and Madison – were in their thirties. Granted, they had experienced greater sacrifices in service to the nation than many of today’s 30 and 40 year olds, were well educated, and had significant political experience as well, but their combination of youthful vibrancy and gravitas set America on a path to greatness.
Contrast that with the current field of presidential contenders, whose average age is 61, the youngest being former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman at 51, and the oldest being Congressman and medical doctor Ron Paul, who is 76.
I don’t want to disparage them for their age, because they all seem to be healthy and energetic. I wonder, however, if their perspective allows them to empathize with the challenges this generation faces, and the need for dramatic change, or if they are wedded to safe, incremental and ultimately small ideas that won’t work. I wonder if they have the vision to grasp the fundamental decisions we have to make on what we expect from our government and ourselves, decisions without which we cannot move forward to find solutions.
I also don’t want to denigrate their personal achievements, because all of them are accomplished men in their own right. Yet, when measured against the profile of our founders and the great American presidents who proved to be big enough for the moment, something is missing. They have plenty of ambition to be president, but what else is there?
Esther declared, “If I must die, I am willing to die,” and the men who signed the Declaration of Independence essentially signaled they were willing to die for the cause of liberty, because their names were sure to be known to the crown, and their heads would be highly prized trophies for the empire. They were also humble men who saw public service as a calling and a sacrifice and did not desire the power over their fellow citizens, nor the trappings that come with such power. They subordinated their own desires to the significance of the moment, and that made all the difference.
As this campaign progresses, I am looking for those qualities in our next president. I am looking for leadership that understands the extent of the global crisis in which we find ourselves, has the vision to know we have big decisions around which we must all coalesce, is willing to sacrifice their political career, if necessary, to make the tough choices we need, is humble enough to seek the consent of the people, and is persuasive enough to achieve consensus and general unity among us.
Our founders were up to the challenge of their times, and their character was revealed in the crucible of war and the struggle for liberty. We have to settle for the rigors of a national presidential campaign to reveal the true character of the contenders for president, but is it no less critical that someone be “elevated…for just such a time as this?”