The virtues of an honest leader

“You can build a throne with bayonets, but you can’t sit on it for long” – Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin gestures as he addresses a crowd in Moscow on March 28, 1993. Yeltsin died in 2007 at the age of 76. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Boris Yeltsin gestures as he addresses a crowd in Moscow on March 28, 1993. Yeltsin died in 2007 at the age of 76.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I could not resist the opportunity to quote Boris Yeltsin. Not because I consider him to be a world figure of such eminent stature; on the contrary, as Russia’s first democratically elected leader, his legacy is at best a mixed bag of reforms and international gaffes. Political correctness may not have been his strongest suit but he was undoubtedly the most entertaining politician to take the world stage in recent memory.
How many leaders can boast of a collection of YouTube classics, such as “The Best of Drunk Boris Yeltsin,” or “Highlights of Boris Yeltsin’s Funniest Moments?” Yet, in spite of his glaring weaknesses, Yeltsin managed to put a smile on many people’s lips. In my book, that is no small feat; certainly not for a politician.
With elections hovering over us, yet once again, we should all probably pause to consider what defines a good leader. Machiavelli was a big proponent of fear. A ruler should be one who is feared but not hated. Love, he reasoned, can be too fickle and too unreliable to ensure the loyalty of one’s subjects – sound advice if we are in the market for a benevolent dictator, but my instincts tell me that most voters would prefer a leader who inspires, rather than one who threatens his electorate. Moses managed to lead a rather unruly mass of followers for 40 years in the wilderness, and he is venerated as the most humble person to have walked the face of this earth – not a bad achievement for a leader without the benefit of a Twitter account.
Unfortunately, a quick survey of today’s leading candidates is not all that promising on the humility front. Bravado, impropriety, indecency, graft – once considered detriments – are now overlooked as long as our leaders deliver the goods. The end always justifies the means is our guiding mantra these days.
How about accountability? Back in 1985, Canada endured its own modified version of Watergate. Dubbed Tunagate, it involved a Canadian minister of fisheries who boneheadedly approved the sale of tainted tuna cans from a major factory in the province of New Brunswick. Faced with a public outcry, he was quick to admit his blunder and promptly resigned his post. Ridiculed by much of the press, John Fraser’s integrity was ultimately rewarded when he was elected the speaker of the House of Commons the following year. In 1982, Lord Carrington resigned as the foreign secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government because of the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands. He deemed his failure to anticipate such an affront to English sovereignty inexcusable, and the only honorable option was to step down as minister. These days, admitting one’s shortcomings has few takers, especially when casting blame on others can be so much more rewarding
Can we settle for a bit of honesty? I doubt it. Forbes printed a survey in January of 2019 that placed members of Congress as the least trusted of America’s professions – outdistancing car salespeople and lawyers. A truly bipartisan achievement, today’s politicians fare equally poorly when polled about their ethics. When Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” he undoubtedly did not envision a president occupying the Oval Office who is so addicted to misinformation. According to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, US President Donald Trump has made more than 15,400 false or misleading claims since his inauguration – and the meter is still running. What makes this president stand out heads over his competition is that he has repeated some of these claims hundreds of times. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” – even Mark Twain may have met his match.
Many years ago, I worked for a man whose word meant everything to him. When he wanted to avoid a phone call, he would literally walk out the back door and instruct us to inform the caller that he has just stepped out. I can’t vouch with any certainty whether my boss would have made a good politician but if he had run for public office, he would have definitely garnered my vote.
Marvin Rapp, who made aliyah from Canada, is a writer living in Jerusalem