The June 14 shooting in the nation’s capital, which left the majority whip of the House of Representatives critically injured, further suggested that America may be abandoning civil discourse and turning dangerously divisive. It also made me long for a time not too long ago when politics involved a larger number of leaders who embodied grace and class.
John C. Danforth, who spent three terms in the U.S. Senate representing Missouri, exemplified such leaders. In June – ironically less than a week before the D.C. shooting mentioned earlier – Danforth, a lawyer and ordained minister who also served as ambassador to the United Nations, was honored with the Churchill Medal of Leadership, an award bestowed on individuals who have demonstrated civility and extraordinary leadership.
In his historic 1946 visit to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech, an address that heralded one of the 20th century’s most significant and enduring lessons for Americans: to remain steadfast in the face of adversity while staying true to our allies. Churchill reminded listeners that the true purpose of power involves creating peace. In fact, the formal title of Churchill’s famous speech was “Sinews of Peace” – the phrase iron curtain later being informally incorporated into its nickname. In today’s America, sadly, another iron curtain, of intolerance, has descended, separating us from the truth – and from one another.
Storm clouds of division and mistrust nowadays obstruct our view of the “broad sunlit uplands” and vital alliances that Churchill described so famously in many wartime addresses.
Still, I remain hopeful about the future of America, a country I fell in love with even before ever setting foot on its soil – hopeful because the high road of the future (to borrow a phrase from Churchill) is paved with the contributions of principled leaders like Danforth.
Danforth believes that all citizens should heed the call of compromise and compassion, and he not only follows that calling but also lives it.
In this era of polarization and partisanship, running for office has become a zero-sum game in which candidates play exclusively to their ideological bases. I believe most Americans on both sides of the political aisle are tiring of extremism and long for a commitment to the common good. They innately understand that we as a country cannot sustain our current trajectory and that these “united” states must be just that if we are to continue to thrive. Danforth’s life of civility, singular service and substance exemplifies what we desire as a nation today.
With increasing frequency, visitors to the National Churchill Museum in Fulton ask, “Why don’t we have more leaders like Winston Churchill?”
I suspect many Missourians also ask, “Why don’t we have more leaders like Jack Danforth who recognize the power of compromise and appreciate that disagreement does not equal disrespect?”
America, at this critical juncture in our nation, desperately needs more statesmen with Danforth’s sense of duty – a duty to truth, to one another and to history.
Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is the 21st president of the 166-year-old Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in economics.