America was in a rut. Unemployment was high. The economy was dreadful. Citizens questioned the competency of their elected leaders to do anything beyond pointing their fingers at the other to cast blame. The world looked at America in wonder whether its best days were behind it. Sitting in the Oval Office, a beleaguered President contemplated a decision that, regardless of its outcome, would weigh heavily upon the legacy of his tenure in office, his re-election campaign and what history would ultimately record about him.
As familiar as that description may sound, it is not a story about today. It’s about a time 32 years ago when a decision was made by a President that if successful would not only return 53 American hostages to their families but would probably cement his chances at a second term in office. The decision to launch Operation Eagle Claw, or “Desert One” as it is better known, proved to be fateful not only for the lives of the eight U.S. military personnel who were killed in the failed mission, but it is believed by historians and even President Carter himself to have led to his resounding electoral defeat on November 4, 1980 by Ronald Reagan.
Fast forward to just a year ago – a different President under similar economic and political conditions makes a similarly difficult decision to launch a military operation in less than ideal conditions to take out the most wanted man on the planet. Despite some eerily familiar military equipment failures during the mission, such as those that doomed the Desert One mission three decades before, the mission ends up being an off-the-chart success ridding the world of one of its worst inhabitants. The euphoria that greats the announcement of the death of Bin Laden rivals any of those personal historical moments we each have when we remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we received the shocking news.
Here are two Presidents with two similar decisions that produced two different results.
There is no doubt that Jimmy Carter could not campaign with photos of the wreckage of charred planes in an Iranian desert as a backdrop, but there is little doubt that Barack Obama will do his utmost to campaign on the decision to put in motion the ultimate demise of Osama Bin Laden.
Since seeing the Obama campaign’s commercial heralding his decision to launch the Bin Laden mission, people from all political corners have either cheered or jeered it. The President’s supporters are always quick to remind anyone and everyone (and especially voters on the fence) that it is “their guy,” not his predecessor George W. Bush, who killed one of America’s biggest bad guys.
His detractors accuse the President of “spiking the football” and over-politicizing a decision that he said he himself said should not be politicized. Even current and former Navy SEALS, the people who actually completed the Bin Laden take-down mission, have weighed in on how their handy work is being used for political purposes.
For as honorable as the President’s spoken intentions may have been a year ago about not “spiking the football” after Bin Laden’s termination, they have been abandoned by the very real and pragmatic electoral politics of when you have an advantage in anything, you take it and use it to its utmost.
Such actions are distasteful on so many levels. It is repugnant in many ways, but it is entirely within the national character of our political system (and others) to use these circumstances to curry favor with an always fickle and inattentive electorate.
For example, following the Civil War in the Reconstruction Era, Radical Republicans literally took to waving a torn, blood-stained shirt of a Union soldier at political rallies to stir up crowds and remind them of the roles their Democratic opponents played in dividing the Union and killing Union soldiers in the years before. It helped them not only win the presidency in 1868, 1872 and 1876 but contributed to sizable majorities in Congress and in legislatures around the country.
“Waving the bloody shirt,” as it became known, is a practice that both political parties have practiced for some time with varying degrees of success. For me, it was as distasteful then as it is now. For all the seriousness that politics is and should be about, actions like those of Radical Republicans of the late 19th century, as well as those who are running the Obama Re-election campaign, should be classified for what they truly are – pure theater.
Most people can tell the difference between a classic play of Shakespeare versus that of the scene out of a Jerry Springer Show. Depending on your personal tastes, you can find that which is tasteful to what is absolutely nauseating. The latter is how I felt when I saw the most recent Obama campaign ad, but it also told me something else.
I’ve learned over time that it’s your actions, more than your words, that are remembered. Rather than letting the actions speak for themselves (and let’s face it, Obama has generated a bad guy body count that probably makes even Chuck Norris envious), his campaign thought it prudent to bellow like a 5th grade kickball champion, “We killed Bin Laden! We killed Bin Laden!”
There’s something ultimately unattractive about that type of conduct. Instead of letting history, facts (and others) speak for him, his campaign felt compelled to be that obnoxious 5th grade kid who we all wanted to see fall flat on his face into a mud puddle as he annoyingly sought more attention for himself.
Humility in the most powerful of moments, like that of Harry Truman at the end of World War II, always seemed to say more than, “Hey, I killed a guy remember?! Think about that when you go to vote!”
The right behavior has also been exemplified by the military leadership and servicemen who actually did the dirty work of this most notable American mission. Probably no one more so than Adm. William McRaven, the leader of Joint Special Operations Command.
It’s hard to think about anything dealing with humility in a world increasingly dominated by reality TV and YouTube moments, but sometimes it is those things left unsaid that ultimately speak the most on your behalf. That’s the hardest thing to expect in a highly charged political climate, but since when have politicians of any stripe ever known when the time was right for them to do one thing and one thing really well? That thing would be “Shut up.” Unfortunately, some lessons are never learned.