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True greatness

Last week the Observer noted a letter to the editor from a lady … the Observer suspects a young one … who wrote, “I have become convinced that Obama has the stuff of True Greatness in him.”

The Observer believes that few folks would consider either of our presidential candidates truly great. Indeed, religious figures aside, very few in world history have earned admission to the pantheon of “true greatness.”

William Shakespeare was a truly great writer. Thomas Edison was a truly great inventor. Tiger Woods is a truly great golfer. But true greatness is something different and bigger. The truly great are those few who changed world history on vast scale under circumstances where almost no one else could have. Persons who, against all odds and in dire conditions, changed life for the better for entire populations and continents.

In America’s history, the Observer can think of only two persons who achieved true greatness: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In the face of overwhelming adversity, Washington established the largest, most successful, most prosperous free democratic republic in world history. He sacrificed the lion’s share of his adult life to do so. (Unlike every other officer in the Continental Army, Washington never left his soldiers’ sides to visit his home during the Revolutionary War). And colonialism’s long demise began with Washington’s efforts, not Gandhi’s or anyone else’s.

Lincoln, who spent less than one year in school, saved the United States (which in turn saved the world from the Nazis and Communists in the next century), ended American slavery, and, in order to do so, spoke and wrote some of the greatest words ever strung together in the English language.

The only truly great person produced in the entire 20th Century, in the Observer’s view, was Sir Winston Churchill who, standing virtually alone within the British government, convinced the British people to stand alone against the seemingly unstoppable Nazis in 1940 when no other country would. It’s hard to imagine life today if history did not contain Winston Churchill.

The truly great put future generations ahead of present-day politics. Washington was offered the title and power of King Washington. But he refused because his goal was larger and longer lasting than his own aggrandizement. (Can you imagine Bill Clinton refusing the title of king? Neither can the Observer). Lincoln appointed his bitterest rivals to the most powerful positions on his Cabinet because he knew they would help him save the Union. Churchill made sure that the leader of the opposing party, Clement Atlee, meaningfully participated in the conduct of World War II, as well as post-war international planning. Such far-looking, selfless service is an anathema to today’s politicians.

Barack Obama does not display (and, in fairness to him, virtually no one else in national government today displays) the stuff of true greatness.

The Settlement Observer is a resident of Farmington.

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