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When the Followers Become Our Leaders

November 24, 2020

Evenings come early in late fall. In America’s north, where I retreat for Thanksgiving, the gentle sun begins to set even before the clock reaches 4:00. The early darkness sparks the primitive impulse to withdraw, to hibernate, to reflect.

It has been a tumultuous year—one that strained us physically and emotionally. I fear the emotional toll has been harder to handle than the limitations on our physical activity. We discovered many things this year about ourselves, as well as our friends and neighbors. Many of my close associates say they have now culled their social lists forever. They tell me they hope never to associate again with certain long-time friends who put themselves and their own selfish interests over the health and safety of their neighbors or who’ve made excuses for a man who has occupied the White House and blatantly damaged American institutions.

I am not ready to condemn the president’s supporters quite so quickly. Since the election—for the first time—Americans are now forced to confront who we have become. From the arrogance of our elites and the easy unfounded beliefs of those who feel sidelined, the suffocating power of the almighty dollar has sullied our discourse, violated our privacy, and infected our heads. We have also seen people who prize power more than they value making our country stronger—by addressing the rampant poverty in our country and the human needs that our own system has overlooked or will not address politically. Having said that, now is time for a collective reckoning—with no finger pointing.

I have turned off my smart phone for the next week. Aside from holiday calls, I want to try and recreate the days when I could hear myself think, so I can ask myself what I can do to help. So far, this reflection has brought me to one observation that both hurts and inspires. This year, as we grasped for signs of leadership and courage, it appeared that it came mostly from those in subordinate positions of power. Think about it. It was the followers, not their bosses, who stood up, took the hit, and suffered the consequences—including illness, intimidation, threats, and joblessness. I repeat: these were not the top people we elected to defend our constitution and our democracy, but their subordinates who risked everything without the prospect of turning their courage into best-selling books or upward career trajectories.

This Thanksgiving, these are the people I will give thanks for.

The medical and healthcare workers of America. What a legacy of sacrifice and fortitude they have left us. Our shameful policy of denial has endangered their lives, now for a second time. It has exposed them to significant personal risk, as other Americans turn their eyes from the unfolding crisis, including limited testing and dwindling ICU beds needed to save lives. COVID-19 will also prove unaffordable for many who will be stricken. It is unconscionable that in the middle of a pandemic there has been an effort to deem ObamaCare unconstitutional, with no proposed alternative.

The serving members of our armed forces. They have taken an oath to defend the constitution and serve, nonpolitically, the American people. This is exemplified by General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In June, a week after law enforcement broke up a largely peaceful demonstration in Lafayette Park, the general memorably apologized to his colleagues and the American people for allowing himself to be used by the President of the United States for his boss’s own political purposes. His courage to admit a mistake and learn from it was inspiring, powerful, and enduring.

The secret service. For duty’s sake, they had to protect a president who cared not one wit about their own health and safety. Not only did the president expose many agents to COVID-19, either personally or through his unmasked events, he also put their families in jeopardy. Fine thanks to the agents who agree, when they take the job, to put themselves between the president and a bullet.

The Vindman brothers, Alexander and Yevgeny. The twins came to the United States with idealism and hope, and they committed themselves to serve the American people. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was subpoenaed by Congress last year to testify in the impeachment hearings. His brother supported him. In February, both paid the price for doing so when they were fired and subjected to a humiliating exit from the White House, as if they were common criminals. I wonder if they’ve allowed themselves to acknowledge that their treatment was not dissimilar to the oppressive tactics used by the country they left—a part of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine.

The long line of people who have been fired for doing their jobs. Success has apparently threatened the narrative of powerful forces.  I am thinking, for instance, of DHS official Christopher Krebs, who proclaimed that the 2020 election was the safest in American history. Rather than receiving accolades for his diligent work, he was dismissed.

Gretchen Witmer, Governor of Michigan. The Democrat governor has not faltered despite intimidation and an attempt to kidnap and possibly assassinate her—all because she was unflinching in her determination to address the safety and health of the people who elected her.

Brad Raffensperger, the Republican Secretary of State for Georgia, who refused to lie in the face of his political party’s abusive pressure. He is now, finally, defended by some in the GOP, but not before he received a range of death threats. This, too, has been the lot of Dr. Anthony Fauci, and many others who will not bow to demands that they change their expert opinions.

Whether or not we agree with the views of these courageous Americans is not the issue. Our country must recognize that civil strife—especially physical intimidation and silencing—is dynamite, especially amid economic despair and disinformation. Those who give a “wink and a nod” to vigilantes, no matter which side they represent, shake the foundations of our country and the viability of the union itself. All of us must demand a calm and peaceful political transition for our country. The danger of this moment should not be discounted. Nor should the work ahead for all of us be underestimated.

As evening draws closer to the morning’s soft sun, take a moment this Thanksgiving to think about our lives with gratitude, not just for your family and dearest friends, but also for those who have shown us courage, even in the face of grave physical and career jeopardy—just for doing what’s right. They inspire us and give us so much to be thankful for.

Sending you my best wishes for Thanksgiving—for a day of meaning and joy.

Susan

12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2020 9:47 am

    I’m thankful for your even keel in such tumultuous times. Applause Susan. Thank You for this wonderful message and thanks for being Who You Are !!!

  2. Ann Turpin permalink
    November 24, 2020 9:56 am

    Thank you for the lovely, thoughtful Thanksgiving piece. I hope your day is a good one.

    Ann

  3. Kathleen Lawrence permalink
    November 24, 2020 12:19 pm

    Susan’s latest post is characteristically thoughtful and cuts through to the essence of the national nightmare through which we have lived since 2016, and in particular these last eight months. But she offers hope that can sustain us in her recognition of to whom our thanks are due. I am grateful for her insight.

  4. catherwoc0001 permalink
    November 24, 2020 1:57 pm

    Wonderful – thank you so much! A gloriously eirenic post in troubled times! And I loved your book on your grandfather!

  5. Sandy Thatcher permalink
    November 24, 2020 8:07 pm

    I couldn’t agree more! Words of true wisdom from a woman whose words always inspire.

  6. November 24, 2020 10:00 pm

    Susan,
    I am so encouraged by your clear vision of what leadership should be, how it isn’t always reflected in the ones who hold the most power, and for being the voice for those in subordinate positions. Those followers, most definitely become the leaders. Like you, I am grateful for them; however, I also long for the time when true signs of leadership are reflected in those who hold the most power. 
    In your previous posts, I have shared stories about my grandfather, Irineo Esperancilla, a Navy steward, who served four Presidents and their families including President Eisenhower. My grandfather wrote in his memoirs about the selflessness and courage of these Presidents as human beings; he marveled at the leadership he observed from behind the scenes. From FDR eating only one egg for breakfast during the Depression, to President Eisenhower taking the time to write a long letter to commend those who served him, the leadership my grandfather witnessed in the office of the Presidency is an example of what we can hope for. I am thankful for their example, and I will hold onto hope for our nation’s future leaders…    
    -Melinda

  7. November 25, 2020 9:21 am

    Well put, Susan.

  8. Robert S. Bast permalink
    November 26, 2020 1:00 pm

    Susan, This morning I was fortunate to catch a rebroadcast of your interview about “How Ike Led” on Here and Now (NPR). My admiration for his leadership and sheer presence has extended over most of my life. As a boy, I was taken from time to time by my mother to visit my grandfather, Sinclair Weeks, Secretary of Commerce in President Eisenhower’s administration, and I got to meet your grandfather. I think kids instinctively recognize character, from heros to charlatans, more promptly than adults. President Eisenhower was completely genuine, and his image in the Oval Office is a lasting impression to this day. HIs example of service to a whole country, to a vision for its future, not just its present, is one that future leaders would do well to embrace.
    Sometimes our own forebears can be some of our greatest hero’s. My grandfather and great grandfather are high on my list. Thank you for keeping yours high on your own, and for helping remind today’s world of the wisdom of his approach.

    -Rob

  9. Bob Hanfling permalink
    November 27, 2020 2:11 pm

    If this were fiction, I would throw the book away after the first few chapters, thinking it was tooooo crazy to even contemplate.

    On Tue, Nov 24, 2020 at 7:38 AM SusanEisenhower.com wrote:

    > Susan Eisenhower posted: ” Evenings come early in late fall. In America’s > north, where I retreat for Thanksgiving, the gentle sun begins to set even > before the clock reaches 4:00. The early darkness sparks the primitive > impulse to withdraw, to hibernate, to reflect. It has been” >

  10. Nathaniel permalink
    November 28, 2020 11:15 pm

    So nicely and patriotically put. This country’s hope and salvation all along has been those who follow their own sense of ethics and duty whatever the price; sometimes those have been our elected or appointed leaders, but unfortunately not so much in the last 4 years.

  11. Harvey Weiss MD permalink
    December 8, 2020 6:55 pm

    HAW
    I would expect nothing less from the granddaughter of one of the greatest Americans! Thank you Ms. Eisenhower….

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