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The Lessons Of History

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About 30 years ago, John Gardner popularized the phrase, “One man can do anything.” Today I am sure he would more likely say, “One man or woman can do anything.” Indeed many, if not most, of the significant events in history are associated with the name of one person. At other times, even the actions of a nameless or unknown person may bend the course of history.

One such example of this is lifted up in Paul Wellman’s great book, “Magnificent Destiny,” a tale about the life of Andrew Jackson and his vision of the westward expansion of the U.S. Wellman relates that in 1844, on the eve of Election Day, Freeman Clark of Switzerland County, Indiana lay seriously ill. He begged his sons to carry him over the mountain into town so that he could vote for David Kelso–an ardent Jackson supporter. After voting and returning home, Clark died but Kelso won by one vote.

Soon after being seated in the Indiana legislature, Kelso became embroiled in a deadlock contest to elect a U.S. Senator. After 25 tie votes Kelso offered a compromise candidate, Edward Hannigan, who won by one vote. Hannigan took his seat in the U.S. Senate amid the debate to admit Texas into the U.S. The attempt had failed twice. However, Hannigan, a new senator, provided the extra vote needed, and Texas was voted in by a one-vote margin.

Paul Wellman wrote, “Can it thus be said that the vote of a dying man in the hills of a backwoods county made Texas a state?”

Ordinarily, this concept is viewed as positive and implies accomplishment through some combination of inventiveness, creativity, leadership or a special brand of charisma. However, such is not always the case, for those same talents can also be used in a destructive way.

For example, in the last half of the 19th century, there emerged on the world scene a man with all three qualities. Ferdinand De Lesseps possessed enormous charisma, which, combined with leadership and creativity, was the driving force behind his successful building of the Suez Canal. He thus became the “authority” on canal building.

Quite logically then, it was to De Lesseps the French turned to when they undertook building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. He accepted the challenge but committed a grave error. Because of the pre-eminence bestowed upon him, he ignored the advice of lesser lights in the engineering world and did not fully probe the challenges. Instead, he viewed it as just another Suez without weighing the differences.

De Lesseps thus led the people of France into a catastrophe. After spending 1.5 billion francs and wasting over 20,000 lives, the effort ended in failure and for the leaders, disgrace and prison.

Is there a lesson to be learned from this experience? Yes, and I believe it is a very important one. Leadership and the charisma that often goes with it, whether gratuitously bestowed or earned through prior efforts, require rigid stewardship. It should expand the vision of the possessor rather than create an attitude of infallibility.

Too often a cause attaches itself to a “name,” or personalities join causes to which they have nothing to contribute but noise and attention. A career in acting, for example, hardly qualifies one as a nuclear expert, yet celebrity status is guaranteed to attract the media no matter how unworthy such a person’s contribution may be to the understanding of so complex an issue.

The lesson to be learned from this, then, is that any triumph carries with it seeds of future failure. Each new challenge must be viewed separately and completely. Consumerists, flush with the victory of ferreting out a particular abuse in the marketplace, can succumb to the same plight as De Lesseps. They may thereby unjustly condemn an entire industry or even a whole system of enterprise.

Legislation in particular tends to attach itself to individuals, or vice versa. The luster of the lawmaker at times may outshine the legislation being considered. The name of Senator Edward Kennedy has for decades been associated with the subject of health care legislation. And yet for all his charisma, he has never been able to get a bill for health reform out of the committee he chaired for years.

Today, other prominent names, charismatic people in high office, are being associated with legislation dealing with the delivery of health care. Comparisons are being made with plans in use by other countries that do not take into account the different challenges, economic and cultural, faced by our country. Just as the problems associated with the building of the Suez Canal differed from the obstacles that had to be overcome in Panama, no two countries are alike in the ways they deliver and finance healthcare. The U.S. is not just another Sweden or Canada. Today, the emphasis on reform centers around making it possible for all or at least most all to be covered by health insurance, and I am all for that.

I would hope that this issue will be decided not by the leadership and charisma of an individual, but rather that challenges will be met by embracing the enormous body of knowledge that exists and the experience that has already done so much to improve our system. The experience of those who deliver and finance our present system should not be ignored or denigrated in public pronouncements just to achieve a political victory.

I suspect that the primary complaint regarding our present system is its cost. Much can be done in this area–but sooner or later, the burden of litigation must be lifted from the system if cost is to be controlled.

John Gardiner’s assertion that “one man can do anything,” is no doubt correct, but it is more important that what is done is the right thing.