I’ve been listening to Lillian Cunningham’s “Presidential” podcast, trying to glean insights into our nation’s earliest leaders. In a month that is sure to contain fireworks – from the 4th of July to the Republican and Democratic conventions – it feels quieting and introspective to cast my mind back to our first presidents.
In her podcast on George Washington, Cunningham interviewed Julie Miller, a Library of Congress historian. She emphasized Washington’s misgivings about his ability to govern the young republic.
“I think he felt that when he expressed his self-doubt that people would not see that as weakness but that they would see it as a strength,” Miller said. “Modesty was something people really valued.”
Miller drew a sharp contrast to the current presidential campaign, marked by bragging and bravado. “I don’t think any of the candidates, for example, would say, ‘I am not qualified to do this job.’ Washington said that publicly over and over.”
And yet, Americans felt otherwise. They saw in the 57-year-old army commander a leader who was clear-eyed about his strengths and shortcomings, sure to assemble a team of smart people. So Washington set off from Mount Vernon, leaving a private life of “domestic felicity,” as he put it, for New York.
“My movements to the chair of government,” he wrote, “will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution – so unwilling am I…to quit a peaceful abode for an ocean of difficulties without that competency of political skill, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm.”
When I heard this, I immediately thought of another leader who expressed a remarkably similar sentiment upon his election. In April 2005, the day after his installation Mass, Pope Benedict XVI opened up about the recent papal conclave.
“As the trend in the ballots slowly made me realize that, in a matter of speaking, the guillotine would fall on me, I started to feel quite dizzy,” said the new pontiff, then 78. “I thought that I had done my life’s work and could now hope to live out my days in peace. I told the Lord with deep conviction, ‘Don’t do this to me. You have younger and better [candidates] who could take up this great task with a totally different energy and with different strength.”
Both men felt truly unworthy of their respective appointments but moved forward, trying to accept the trust their peers had placed in them as they leaned on their faith in God. Another striking similarity: both men could’ve remained in their positions of power until death but made the bold choice to step down. They reached their decisions after discerning their own diminishing capacities as well as the shifting needs of the climates in which they served.
In an era when the temptation of fame and followers has never been greater, the humility of Washington and Benedict gives me pause. Here we are, grasping for status and whatever strange 21st-century sponsorships and shortcuts it may confer. And there they are, sure of who they are and who they are not, stepping aside gracefully to let someone else do something else.
Benedict’s someone else, Francis, recently reflected on the virtue that gave way to his papacy, speaking about the Sermon on the Mount and citing “Blessed are the meek” as one of the most important beatitudes.
“Meekness is a way of being that draws us very close to Jesus,” Pope Francis said. “At its depths, it is understanding the greatness of God.”
That understanding brings such freedom. Nothing to prove or earn or defend. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of SisterStory.org.