Reflections on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Marvelous Book: "The Bully Pulpit"

December 23, 2013

File Memorandum
December 10, 2013


This was one of the most thought-provoking books which I have read in a long time.  In the study of Taft and Roosevelt, the author presents a remarkably clear perspective on leadership qualities, pro and con.  It presents numerous illustrations of how the challenges we face today in government corruption and splintering of the country into partisan groups are, by no means, new. 

I have chosen to develop some summary thoughts on a few themes* which I think are relevant to my own life and to life in general below:

Theme #1 -- Roosevelt’s Character and Vision
The first point that impressed me was how he had grown up in a life of privilege; as did Taft.  No better example of this than when Roosevelt was 14, the family spent an entire winter in Egypt; three weeks in Palestine; two weeks in Lebanon and Syria; three weeks in Athens and Smyrna and Constantinople; and five months in Germany.  They had a two-month journey along the Nile in a private vessel with a 13-man crew. 

A characteristic of Roosevelt (much like my own) is that he never left anything to the last minute; preparing far ahead “freed his mind” from worry and facilitated fresh, lucid thought.  At one point, Taft marveled:  “I never knew a man who worked this far in advance of what has to be done.  Perhaps I value this virtue more highly because I lack it myself.”

I also came to appreciate Roosevelt’s love of his family.  He remarked when he was in college that he doubted if there was anyone “who has a family that loved him as much as you all do (writing to his Father).”  And “I am sure there is no one who has a Father who is also his best and most intimate friend, as you are mine.”

It’s hard to know how much future strength Roosevelt drew from as horrible a sequence of blows as one can imagine.  At the age of only 22, his wife, whom he had pursued as aggressively as I pursued Francie, died; on that same day, his Mother died.  She was only 49. 

He went on to marry a childhood friend, Edith Carow.  His affection for her was signaled early in their relationship as, in only a period of five weeks of being separated, he sent her 17 letters and she wrote almost as many in return.  I can identify with that. 

I can identify, too, with the strength he drew from being with his family.  One of his friends observed:  “His wife and children gave him the kind of spiritual bath that sent him back to the city refreshed and ready for what might come.” 

*In many portions, I have redacted phrases directly from DKG’s magnificent book.

It wasn’t a singular picture, however, of “family comes first.”  While his wife was very sick, indeed not knowing “whether she would live or die,” Roosevelt “could not forego the opportunity to go to Cuba” to serve with the Rough Riders.  “You know what my wife and children mean to me,” he told one of his supporters, “and yet I made up my mind that I would not allow even a death to stand in my way; it was my one chance to do something for my country and for my family…I now know that I would have turned from my wife’s deathbed to have answered the call.” 

That, I can assure the reader, would not have been my choice.

The combative nature of Roosevelt comes through loud and clear.  He was always ready for a fight.  As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he insisted that he would “rather welcome a foreign war.  The victories of peace are great; but the victories of war are greater…every man who has in him any real power of joy in battle knows that he feels it when the wolf begins to rise in his heart; he does not shrink from blood and sweat, or deem that they mar the fight; he revels in them, in the toil, the pain and the danger, as but setting off the triumph.”  He was looking forward to a war with Spain over Cuba. 

I can only say that Roosevelt had not tasted the true trauma of war; too young to have experienced the Civil War firsthand; not in office when the horrors of World War I hit.  I don’t believe he would have waxed so enthusiastically about war today.  One would hope not. 

I was especially taken by Roosevelt’s pointed view on the role of corporate responsibility and the importance of the Republican Party adopting a progressive stance.  He came down hard on “monopolistic constructions that impeded the consumer interest.”  He firmly believed that the Republican Party “should be beaten and badly beaten, if we took the attitude of saying the corporations should not, when they received great benefits and make a great deal of money, pay their share of the public burdens.”  Advocating “the adoption of what is reasonable in the demands of reformers” as “the surest way to prevent the adoption of what is unreasonable,” Roosevelt hoped to propel “the party of property” toward a more “enlightened conservatism.”

Again and again he returns to this theme, struggling as the author notes, “to reconcile Party allegiance with the drive to address social problems, a balancing act that became more difficult as the troubling aspects of industrialization intensified.  While he considered himself conservative in relation to the Populists, he believed that his party was in thrall to reactionaries who so ‘dreaded radicalism’ that they ‘distrusted anything that was progressive’.” 

As President, he worked hard to take action “on the single economic issue of the day:  the trust” and his desire to establish the Department of Commerce “with the power to demand information and determine necessary regulation” was effectively opposed by Republicans.

“I pass my days in the state of exasperation,” Roosevelt told his son, Kermit, “first with the fools who do not want any of the things that ought to be done and, second, with the equally obnoxious fools who insist upon so much that they cannot get anything.”  He lamented what we see today, letting legislation “fall between the two stools of the House and the Senate.”  He was referring here particularly to antitrust legislation. 

He continued to talk about what the Republican Party needed to do in terms that apply today.  As DKG writes, the cost to both his party and the country would be immense, he believed, if “the people at large” perceived “that the Republican Party had become unduly subservient to the so-called Wall Street men—to the men of mere wealth, the plutocracy.”  It would result in a “dreadful calamity,” Roosevelt told a conservative friend to see the nation “divided into two parties, one containing the bulk of the property owners and conservative people; the other the bulk of the wage workers and the less prosperous people, generally; each party insisting upon demanding much that was wrong, and each party sullen and angered by real unfancied grievances.” 

What better summation could there be of the situation we face today?

Running as the Presidential candidate of the Progressive Party in 1912, Roosevelt said this:  “We Progressives believe that human rights are supreme over all other rights; that wealth should be the servant, not the master, of the people.”  “Unless representative government does absolutely represent the people, it is not representative government at all.”  At this point, he was arguing for direct primaries and for federal laws to regulate child labor and women’s working conditions, to establish an income tax and to establish workman’s compensation.   

One of his favorite maxims on leadership was this:  “Don’t hit until you have to; but, when you do hit, hit hard.”  And this:  “It is never well to take drastic action if the result can be achieved with equal efficiency in less drastic fashion.”  And this, most famous of all:  “It is not the critic who counts,” he had famously preached upon his return from his African safari, “not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause.”

Elihu Root, a leading Republican, captured Roosevelt’s essence very well in this observation:  “He is essentially a fighter and when he gets into a fight, he is completely dominated by the desire to destroy his adversary.”  That was aptly demonstrated as he turned on Taft, a man whom he had said was more qualified to be President than anyone in history during the nomination battle to be the Presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 1912.

In a way, I found nothing more descriptive of Roosevelt’s character than how he reacted to being shot.  With the extent of the wound unknown, he demanded that he continue to be taken to where he was speaking and he spoke for an hour and a half, then telling his associate that he was ready to go to the hospital.  What they discovered was that the bullet had fractured his ribs, only missing his heart because it had hit the wadded speech which he had put into his pocket.

I believe the best summation of Roosevelt’s commitment to relentlessly pursuing a great cause is contained in this statement:  “Perhaps once in a generation there comes a chance for the people of a country to play their part wisely and fearlessly in some great battle of the age-long warfare for human rights.  We know that there are in life injustices which we are powerless to remedy, but we know also that there is much injustice which can be remedied.”  Referring to the Progressive Party, he pledged that it would harness “the collective power of the people through their governmental agencies.  We propose to lift the burdens from the lowly and the weary, from the poor and the oppressed.  We propose to stand for the sacred rights of childhood and womanhood.  Surely there never was a fight better worth making than this.  Win or lose, I am glad beyond measure that I am one of the many who, in this fight, has stood ready to spend and be spent.”

Theme #2 -- How Times Remain the Same
It was striking; indeed it brought a smile to my face to read that William Howard Taft’s mother, Louise, served as the first President of the Cincinnati Free Kindergarten Association.  As DKG writes, in the 1880s, Ohio laws had forbidden public funding of education for children younger than six.  Public kindergartens would eventually be established but, meanwhile, Louise and a group of her friends helped raise money to open a series of charity kindergartens.  “If the little ones who wander neglected in our streets are to be reached,” she proclaimed, “private benevolence must come to the rescue.  We, therefore, appeal to the friends of education and humanity to help us in this effort.”  The first kindergarten was established in 1880, followed by others, including one in which William Howard Taft’s wife, Nellie, taught.  Today, we are seeking to provide quality pre-K for all children.

There is also the continuing effort of each party to profit from holding office.  Theodore Roosevelt focused heavily on civil service reform.  As Roosevelt said, “Each party profited by the offices when in power, and when in opposition each party insincerely denounced its opponents for doing exactly what itself had done and intended again to do.” 

Roosevelt had long been aware of the corruption that was endemic in the country’s political and judicial systems, but he was sustained by what DKG says was his “sometime overweening belief in the right of his cause and the prospect of arousing struggle.”  “For the last few years, politics with me has been largely a balancing of evils and I am delighted to go in on a side where I have no doubt whatever and feel absolutely certain that my efforts are wholly for the good; and you can guarantee I intend to hew to the line and let the chips fly where they will.”

So, too, the split in the nation which we lament today is not new, though I doubt if it’s been more exaggerated than it is now.  Going back to the mid-1890s, the candidate who opposed Roosevelt in running for the mayor position in New York, Henry George, observed:  “We girdle the land with iron roads and lace the air with telegraph wires; we add knowledge to knowledge and utilize invention after invention.”  (Yet, despite such progress) he declared, “It becomes no easier for the masses of our people to make a living.  On the contrary, it is becoming harder.” 

DKG notes that a mood of rebellion began to spread among the laboring classes with an unprecedented number of violent strikes.  The combination of meager wages for 12-hour working days in unsafe, unsanitary conditions has spurred millions of workers to join unions.  In the year 1886 alone, more than 600,000 workers walked out on strike.

Citing the mindset of Walter White, a fabled correspondent, “he (White) began to understand the profound inequities that had produced the Populist uprising; how the growth of colossal corporations strangled competition in one field after another; how these corporations blatantly wielded their power through venal politicians, widening the gap between the rich and the poor.  Belatedly, but surely, he (White) came to recognize that (William Jennings) Bryan’s platform in 1896 ‘was the beginning of the long fight for distributive justice, the opening of a campaign to bring to common man…a larger and more equitable share in the commonwealth of our country’.”

DKG also shines a sharp light on the fact that corruption about which we complain so much today in other countries was alive and well in the United States.  Lincoln Steffens, one of the leading so-called “muckraker” journalists committed to social reform, conducted a series of interviews to determine why, when gambling enterprises and houses of prostitution were illegal, did the police officers of law allow them to exist?  Why were some saloons permitted to stay open beyond the designated hours while others were not?  “With astonishment,” Steffens learned that pervasive, systematic bribery allowed these businesses willing to pay Tammany Hall’s substantial monthly charge to operate unmolested, while those who refused to furnish protection money were closed down.  That’s the way it was. 

The practice extended all the way to the Senate, this in a day when senators were not elected through open elections but through backroom deals.  A scathing editorial from The New York Times said it well, suggesting that a millionaire could buy a senate seat “just as he would buy an opera box, or a yacht, or any other luxury in which he could afford to indulge himself.”  In some instances, The Times reported:  “The sale takes the form of open bribery of the legislators”; more often, the senate seat was “simply the satisfaction of a ‘claim’ acknowledged by the leaders of the party and created by large contributions to the party treasury.” 

Who could fail to hear an echo today from these words in a New York Times editorial on October 2, 1904 in the midst of the presidential campaign:  “The steady advance and the influence of money in our public life (works) as a poison on the minds and hearts of men.”  The editorial was launching out against Theodore Roosevelt, lamenting that “when a man of Mr. Roosevelt’s native scorn for corruption can be the willing, the eager, beneficiary of funds paid into his campaign chest through his former secretary and former cabinet officer with the undisguised hope that it will be repaid in favors to the subscribers.”

In happy contrast to this, DKG describes the demise of the Cox machine in Cincinnati and the “Young Republicans in Cincinnati” who formed a new club with a progressive agenda.  It was led by Howard Hollister (a founding member of the current law firm carrying that name).  At Hollister’s request, both Taft and Roosevelt accepted honorary memberships in the “Roosevelt Republican Club.”  Only such clear disassociation from corrupt and self-serving elements in the Republican Party, Hollister argued, could “disabuse the public mind of the growing feeling of domination of the party by the corporations and money-making commercial politicians.”

Theme #3 – The Character and Accomplishments of William Howard Taft
The most illuminating part of this book for me was the light it cast on the character and accomplishments of William Howard Taft.  I had known really little about him, and I came away from the book feeling that he was underrated both as President and as a human being.  His accomplishments were remarkable in many ways:  as the Governor of the Philippines; as President; as a judge throughout his life; and, finally, in what for him was the best job of all, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  There are certain aspects of his character, at least as viewed from outside, that are akin to my own.  And some that were very different, particularly, at least as described in this book, his tendency to delay doing things.

Taft’s affection for his wife is embodied in words much like I would use.  Describing her to a friend, he said:  “You know what a constant source of comfort and strength she is to everyone who seeks it from her.  She has already made me a better man--my ideals of life are higher and I believe my purpose to attain them is stronger.  Certainly there could not be given to a man a stronger motive for upright, consistent, hard-working and kindly living than the approval and intelligent sympathy of such a wife.”  And this which he wrote in a letter to his young wife:  “We can be happy as long as we live, if we only love each other and the children that come to us.”

One of the characteristics attributed to WHT that has much in common with my own character and even more perhaps what is described as my character, was his conciliatory nature and, sometimes, too great a need for approval.  Doris Kearns Goodwin describes this in many different dimensions.  One was the way in which he sought approval from his father:  (DKG) “Years later, Taft would credit his father’s indomitable will and lofty aspirations in prompting his own achievements.”  Or, as his father was dying, he described this spirit to his wife, Nellie, “I have a kind of presentiment that Father has been a kind of guardian angel to me and that his wishes for my success have been so strong and intense as to bring it, and that as his life ebbs away and ends, I shall cease to have the luck which has followed me thus far.”

A telling comment came from Taft’s mother, Louise, as she described her son’s level of needing  approval as a “besetting fault.”

In contrast to Roosevelt, Goodwin describes Taft as a “conciliator by nature; Taft was never comfortable when called upon to deliver ‘partisan diatribes and political rallies.’  He was reluctant to stir controversy or give avoidable defense.”  I can identify with that description.

At the same time, and I’d put myself in the same camp, Taft was not ready to “compromise his principles for approval or expediency.”  Goodwin describes Taft’s “quiet courage in his fight” against his political opponent “and his refusal to fire conscientious workers simply because of their political preferences.”  As Goodwin writes, “Taft had been willing to resign his post as revenue collector rather than bow to demands that he fire the best men in his department due to their political affiliations.”  (This brought me back to my admiration for my son John’s decision at Boloco.)

As President, Taft brought on a great deal of controversy in a debate over who should be leading the Department of the Interior.  Unwilling to let a controversial figure (Ballinger) go, the President said:  “Life is not worth living and the office is not worth having if, for the purpose of acquiring popular support, we have to do a cruel injustice or acquiesce in it.”  He generally believed that the press was “unjustly persecuting” a good man.

Taft’s sense of honor also emerged when Roosevelt asked him to assume a position on the Supreme Court.  “All his life,” his wife, Nellie, recalled, “his first ambition had been to attain the Supreme Bench.”  However, because the invitation came in the midst of great “religious excitement, monetary crises” and cholera in the Philippines, where he was serving as Governor, his response was, “Great honor; deeply appreciated; but must decline.”


There were those who felt Taft’s personality was ill-suited to the commanding role of President.  I suppose a few people felt that way about me, too, as the CEO.  Reporters described Will Taft as “the kindest man they (had) ever known in public life.”  Goodwin states that:  “The politics of personal destruction held no relish for a man ‘born with an instinct to be personally agreeable.’”

His mother Louise Taft understood the strengths and weaknesses of Taft.  “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” she warned him when he declared his candidacy, knowing that Roosevelt would also throw his hat in the ring.  “Roosevelt is a good fighter and enjoys it, but the malice of the politicians would make you miserable.”  A reporter said it this way:  “The country respects and trusts his ability and integrity, but his attitude is that of passive recognition and approval, not the headlong affection that brings power to a political leader of the first rank.”  But, from my perspective, that was overcome by the sense of responsibility and opportunity he brought to the task once in office.  No matter what it was.

There is no doubt that, at some points, Taft was too deferring; and perhaps, on occasion, so was I.  An example, shortly after his election, and with his administration still being formed, he told an audience that Elihu Root “ought to be President-elect and I ought to be a prospective member of his cabinet because I know how to serve under him.”*  (That I can never imagine saying having been appointed to a senior position.) 

Goodwin asserts that “such sentiments cannot be simply construed as extravagant humility or a nod, self-disparaging honor.  Rather, like his chronic procrastination, they connote tentativeness, a want of confidence arising from underlying insecurity.” 

There were points along the way when I probably deferred too much to some of the pronouncements and decisions of Durk Jager.  I finally came to grips with this, but in hindsight I took too long on some issues.  And the reason I did, I think, traces to some of the points that are made about Taft’s temperament, ones I share.

             *Elihu Root served as Secretary of War and Secretary of State.

Perhaps the most striking blow to Taft’s leadership image was the deferential approach he took to the Speaker of the House, Joseph Cannon.  His original intent (and the desire of many) was to oust him.  But he backed away from doing that.  This dispirited the reformers a great deal and caused them to lose confidence in his leadership.  Goodwin goes on to say that:  “Perhaps it was inevitable that Taft’s temperament – his aversion to dissension and preference for personal persuasion – would ultimately lead him to work within the system rather than mobilize external pressure from his bully pulpit.  But his conciliatory approach left his administration and the American people at the mercy of Joseph Cannon ‘the most sophisticated’ politician in the country and ‘the most familiar with every subterranean channel of politics, the most cunning in its devious ways, the most artful in the tricks of the craft.’”


I greatly admire Taft’s attitude toward the Filipinos when he was the Governor.  There was a great deal of discrimination shown against them at the time.  His wife shared Taft’s dismay:  “It is a great mistake to treat them as if they were inferiors and it really surprised me that the powers that be do not insist upon a different policy.”  Taft’s view was very contrary to Arthur McArthur’s* who “considered Taft’s desire to provide education and involve the populace in government as both wrong-headed and ultimately hazardous.”  This was influenced by the strong abolitionist beliefs of his father.

One aspect of Taft’s character which is unlike me (and may be over-characterized by Goodwin) was his unwillingness “to accept honest criticism.”  He had what is described as a “defensive, even paranoid stance toward the press.”  Rather than accept that “criticism may spring from an honest difference in principles,” Taft, per Goodwin, sought to discredit the publications, implying that their critiques sprang from self-interest or malice.  How sad.

In many ways, I believe that Roosevelt “failed Taft.”  He did not support him in the end.  He looked for opportunities to disagree with him. How ironical this was given the incredible praise and support Roosevelt had given to Taft.  At one point he said this:  “You are of all the men in this country the one best fitted to give the nation the highest possible service as President.”  His confidence was expressed again and again.  He brought him back from the Philippines to be his Secretary of War and regarded him as by far the most important man he could turn to, in the Cabinet.  He, per DKG, “admired Taft above any other figure in public life.”  And no wonder, based on what he had done.

Yet, after returning from Africa, and as the battle for the 1912 nomination unfolded, Roosevelt could not have been more negative.  His (Taft’s) problem, Roosevelt said, was not that he had “gone wrong,” but that he had stayed put while the country was moving ahead.  “He never thinks at all of the things that interest us most; he does not appreciate or understand them.  As for my ever having any enthusiasm for Taft again, it is utterly impossible.”

            *Military Governor of the Philippines; father of General Douglas McArthur.

Then, there was this assault in the final moments of the 1912 campaign:  “Taft has not only been disloyal to our past friendship, but he has been disloyal to every cause of decency and fair play.”  He only discovered I was dangerous to the people when I discovered he was useless to the people.”

Happily, they reconciled before they died.  Roosevelt first in January 1919; age only 61.


Reflections on the Movie: "12 Years a Slave"

By far, the most authentic, visceral portrayal I have ever seen of the horror of slavery in its treatment of Blacks and the worst instincts in human nature, as well as a few of the best, e.g., courage, persistence and love of family.
At the most fundamental level, it shows an horrific setting, the ease with which people can separate themselves from the “other,” regarding them as virtually “inhuman,” not worthy of respect, “property” in the literal sense of the word. 
You don’t reach my age without realizing that all of us are a mixture of instincts, good and bad; we all need to fight against that instinct to develop our own sense of worth by negating someone else’s worth and finding that easier to do by differentiating the “other” by color or appearance or something else that, in the end, comes down to “caste.”
I choose the word “caste” with an upcoming trip to India in mind, where, by most counts, there are upwards of 12 million people still in some form of slavery:  bonded labor or sexual trafficking.  When one wonders (as I do) how this system of slavery could continue so long, you come back to the element of caste which this movie suggests to me is what Negroes had become to so many White people, particularly those with economic gain to be had and a mode of living that was dependent on their subservience.
There was an acute comment made by one of the members of the audience (I believe Bernadette Watson) that Solomon’s stamina and his never being willing to let go of freedom took strength from the fact that he had at one time experienced freedom.  In contrast, many of the slaves on the plantations had been in that condition, probably since birth and, while I’m sure they felt the horrible constraint of slavery, they could not proceed with the “hope” and vision of “what was possible” which Northup did.
The takeaway from that perspective for me is the need to give people hope.  That, above all, is what a good parent does; what a great teacher can do; what a mentor can do; what a person can do in any relationship which conveys trust and high expectations to another person.
Anyone has to have a sense of sadness in seeing how the Bible and various extracts from it were used by slavers to support the institution that was so diabolically opposed to any view of God that sees “love of others” as its foundational point.  But that happened and it continues to happen all too often today. 
For me, life in its essence gets back to something pretty simple.  And that is to try to make the life of everyone around you better.  It brings me back to two words which, if I could only name two in defining human relationships, it would be these:  “everyone counts.”
I hope this movie will help people understand not only the horrific nature of slavery but the fact that this tendency of ours to view and discount and to sometimes malign those who are different than we are still exists and to try as best we can to overcome that instinct and rather as one writer, Matthew Kelly, expressed it:   “…see ourselves in others and others in ourselves—that is wisdom!”
The movie poses moral issues of courage and integrity which remind of situations that we face today and which personally raise the question of what I would have done in similar circumstances.
There is the chilling scene of Northup, hanging with a noose around his neck, the tips of his toes barely touching the muddy ground just sufficiently to ward off his death, hanging there for a seeming eternity in the film.  Around him, you see the White overseer and the plantation mistress, looking on, turning away, conscious surely of the man’s agony but also that they will not lose their property to death.  Around Northup also are fellow slaves, going about their lives, almost not wanting to notice him; kids playing, certainly not noticing him.  No one even considering, it would appear, to come to his rescue, except one soul who comes up to give him a sip of water. 
What would I have done if I were an enslaved man or woman in this situation?  Would I have had the courage to go up and cut him down, knowing that I was risking my life and certainly bringing on a whipping?  Perhaps it wasn’t even a question in the minds of most of the slaves; they had become so conditioned to this way of life.
Today, there are situations that bear at least a remote resemblance to this.  We read about a shooting, with the victim on the ground, and many people staying clear for risk of their own lives.
At a wholly different level, we encounter a poor person on the street with a “homeless” sign around his or her neck and we go by, feeling that they are undeserving, that our help wouldn’t be of real help in the end, feeling that they are “some other” somehow.
There is the horrific scene of the whipping of the young slave girl, Patsey, the most brutal part of the film for me; a girl already brutally treated sexually by Eps.   Solomon is ordered to do the whipping.  He is told that, if he doesn’t do it, he will be shot in the head.  He commences the whipping with as little force as he could.  Then, following the threat that if he doesn’t do it with more force, he would be killed, he does it, being compelled, as I saw him, to do so fiercely because of his disgust at himself for doing it at all.
What would any of us have done?  What would I do if ordered to whip or maim a fellow associate with the knowledge that, if I didn’t, my own life or body was at risk?
During the Holocaust, of course, Jews were ordered to guide fellow Jews to their deaths.  All over the world today and throughout history, there are circumstances where family members are ordered to maim or kill other family members. 
No doubt, the instinct for survival is second to none; it’s human nature.  Northup acknowledged his own deep commitment to not only survive but to “live.”
Yet, what price in honor is too great to survive, to live?
One never knows, I would never know, for sure until the moment was at hand. 
There is much more to this film.  There are counterpoised scenes which capture brilliantly what I have long thought of as the best and worst in life.
We see the joy of being with one’s family at the beginning of the film and at the end.  (Interestingly, we see no joy in family life on the plantation.)  These scenes are interspersed with the demeaning, joyless lives of the Negroes and the unremitting, demeaning treatment imposed on them by the Whites.
We see beautiful, inspiring scenes of nature--of landscapes and of skies--counterpoised against scenes of drudgery, of hopelessness, of day-to-day survival.
There are also scenes of hope.  I refer particularly to the Negroes’ singing spirituals.  Northup is initially intentionally detached but then, almost despite himself, he becomes deeply engaged with full voice.
There are three thoughts which I ponder, having reflected on the film hours after seeing it:
1.      I am reminded of how badly we can treat each other when we are not at our best.
2.      I am reminded that this has happened throughout history as people have used power and position to advantage and justified this by the instinct of defining “others” as unworthy and, in some cases, sub-human.
3.      I return to the thought expressed earlier:  “The greatest barrier to loving people, to cherishing people, to accepting people is our inability to see ourselves in them.  Take a closer look. We are one.  To see ourselves in others and others in ourselves—that is wisdom.”
Acting in accord with “The Better Angels of our Nature,” a task to which, with God’s help, we are always called.
(11/18/13)  I re-read these reflections on “12 Years a Slave” shortly after returning from my ten-day trip to India.  It is sobering, indeed chilling, to contrast the searing content of “12 Years a Slave” with what I witnessed in India:  a red-light district in Kolkata in which 10,000 women are entrapped due to poverty or sheer enslavement in prostitution; millions of men and women entrapped in bonded labor.  As I reflected in my notes on “12 Years a Slave,” I had seen, once again, how people have used power and position to their own advantage, justifying it by the instinct of defining “others” as unworthy and, in some cases, sub-human.  That was the situation with the Negroes; as it is today for millions in India as they are looked on as a lower caste.  In both these situations, I witnessed how people came to view those they treated brutally as not deserving human treatment.   

Reflections on Human Motivation

August 30, 2013

Ernest Becker's "Escape from Evil" is one of the most sobering, humbling  and mind-opening books I’ve read in a long time. It is a companion to Becker's Pulitzer Prize winning book, "The Denial of Death", which I re-read after many years just following my first reading of "Escape from Evil". My notes below include some modification of my reaction to "Escape.." based on the subsequent reading of "Denial of Death".
This may be the most profoundly illuminating descriptions of human motivation which I have ever read. I identify with it again and again.. There is however a central assertion and conviction of Becker's with which I disagree, at least as I understand Becker.  More below.

The Motivating and Orienting Power of the Declaration of Independence and P&G's PVP

August 27, 2013

July 25, 2013

Reading Isaiah Berlin’s “The Power of Ideas,” and specifically the chapter, “The Purpose of Philosophy,” brought a fresh and, for me, compelling perspective on the importance and nature of the Declaration of Independence and Procter & Gamble’s Purpose, Values and Principles.  It may seem a bit outlandish to be discussing these two documents in a parallel fashion; but, as I hope to make clear, there is a reason for doing this.  That reason is founded in the fact that both of these documents provide an important framework, or "model" as Isaiah Berlin would describe it, of how a group of people have chosen and intend to operate and live--a model which embraces their fundamental mission or purpose; the outcomes they seek; and the paths they will pursue to achieve them.  They do this in a decisive, concrete, aspirational and comprehensive manner, yet one that provides the space for application of future learning.  Doing this, as these two documents do, carries great value for the future.

At the same time, both of these statements contain important internal tensions surrounding the relative priority of the goals and the means for achieving them.  These tensions, while bringing challenge, also bring energy and debate needed for future progress.

Let me quote just a portion of the chapter I refer to from Isaiah Berlin’s book to provide context for what I am discussing here.  He asserts that many who have thought about history have seen that different epics do not differ so much based on the “empirical content of what the successive civilizations saw or thought as the basic patterns in which they perceive them, the models and terms of which they conceive them, the category spectacles through which they view them.”

Berlin illustrates his point by observing, for example, that civilizations or institutions which are founded on the belief that God created man for a specific purpose, that there is an afterlife in which man’s sins will be visited upon him, are radically different from the world of a man who believes in none of these things, and that, as a result, the political beliefs, the tastes, the personal relationships of the former will deeply and systemically differ from those of the latter.  To illustrate further, he observes that two very different views of the role of the State -- one being that of “a traffic policeman and night watchman preventing collisions", or another, the State's being a “great cooperative endeavor of individuals seeking to fulfill a common end” -- that these two views lead to laws, practices and expected behaviors which vary greatly.

Here are perhaps the most famous lines of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights and among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This sentence of 35 words communicates as succinct and decisive a view of the conditions under which men should live as has ever been written.  It has been a model or framework which no matter how imperfectly realized has guided the development of our nation for over 230 years.

Turning to business, most businesses will view the objective facts of the world around them in similar terms:  They serve multiple constituencies;  consumers matter; people count; a business needs to make a profit; it lives in the community and in an increasingly global world; change is happening faster and innovation is more vital than ever, as is disciplined execution.  How these realities are priorized and internalized into an operating set of goals and principles and values varies from company-to-company.  Even more, how these principles and values are lived varies.  Some companies will choose shareholder return as a singular focus.  For others, like P&G, the consumer will be the starting point.  Some will bring greater emphasis to the importance of people and that will show up in the emphasis on recruiting, training and career development.  Some will place greater weight on the long-term; others on the short-term.

Here is Procter & Gamble's Statement of Purpose:  

We will provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world’s consumers, now and for generations to come.

As a result, consumers will reward us with leadership sales, profit and value creation, allowing our people, our shareholders, and the communities in which we live and work to prosper. 

Here are P&G’s Principles:  Integrity; Leadership; Ownership; Passion for Winning; Trust.


So what about the commonality of the Declaration of Independence and Procter & Gamble’s Purpose, Values and Principles? 

Just this:  Both of these statements express important choices as to what the institution’s goals are and what outcomes will manifest the achievement of these goals.  They also delineate certain values and behaviors necessary to achieve these goals. 

They have had lasting impact.  They are living documents.

They are statements that we all know are never fully fulfilled.  They are stars, goals to which we aspire.  They are reference points against which we can and must compare our current behavior and adapt and improve it to better meet these aspirations. 

They are laced with internal tensions.  P&G's Purpose, Values and Principles, for example, espouse, at the same time, the importance of innovation and teamwork, leaving open the case-by-case consideration of how they will be balanced.  P&G’s Purpose intentionally melds a commitment to consumers, employees, shareholders and our communities; but deciding how to balance these commitments, short- and long-term, is seldom self-evident.

The Declaration of Independence espouses equality and endowed rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness for all men.  Yet this leaves open the question of the relative role of the State and the Federal Government in helping assure each individual the realization of these ends.  And what if there is conflict between what one state permits compared to another.  We lived for almost a century under the mantel of a Declaration of Independence which espoused equality while slavery existed in half the country.  We lived even longer with some States giving women the right to vote while others denied it, until finally a Federal constitutional amendment was passed which made women's right to vote a national right. And we live with the same dichotomy today as States differ in recognizing the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. 

None of these tensions depreciates the value of these documents, provided we continue to hold the Purpose clear and examine, and indeed debate, how, in light of new knowledge and today’s circumstances, we can better fulfill the essential goals they embrace. 

It is notable how few countries and how few companies actually try to anchor their decisions on a living statement of purpose and set of values like these.  Even long-developed nations, as in Western Europe, seldom refer to foundation documents in the way we do in the United States.  Very few companies, in my experience, test their decisions and behaviors against a statement of purpose and values as we do at Procter & Gamble.

As we have seen, and again referring to the Declaration of Independence, the concept of equality has taken on different meanings over time, whether that be racial segregation, recognition of same-sex marriage, or women's suffrage.  In the future, I personally hope our commitment to “equality” will continue to expand and come to embrace the belief that all children should have the benefit of early childhood development that enables them to start life on close to an equal footing compared to those who are most well off.  

So, too, I’m sure, the actions and behaviors required to best fulfill the Purpose of Procter & Gamble will be conceived in new ways, hopefully wisely and consistent with new learning and the surrounding environment, but always with the guiding principle of being the finest consumer goods company imaginable based on fulfilling our Purpose and living our Values.


July 27, 2013

It has been an interesting month* as far as the news is concerned.  We have our issues of course.  The U.S economy, as Vice President Biden acknowledged honestly, is worse than expected.  The overwhelming media attention to the death of Michael Jackson.  The tragic murder of Steve McNair takes away a pro football figure that many including me admired as an icon of the sport.  The unpredictable shifts in career direction for Sarah Palin continue unabated.  This is what has filled our papers.
Well, fortunately that is not the sum of it, for the past several weeks have also witnessed some events of much greater significance and I believe transcendental importance as the people of the world and their leaders, at least in some places, strive to achieve greater freedom and justice and peace.
We have witnessed hundreds of thousands of people in Iran risk their lives—and in hundreds of cases give their lives—to achieve freedom and ownership of their lives.  One of these brave souls—Nada—who was killed mercilessly while protesting in a square in Teheran—will be a beacon of inspiration for decades to come.  She has entered that galaxy of heroes willing to risk their lives for what they see as a moral right—the right of every individual to freedom and justice.  The fact that we are still so far from achieving this ideal should not, cannot be allowed to discourage us from what we can to progress toward it.
We have also witnessed President Obama in Moscow signing an agreement with President Medvedev to reduce nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles.
We celebrated the 4th of July, recalling that 233 years ago 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence. It contained not only one of the most aspirational but in relationship to the then current reality one of the most preposterous propositions imaginable:  “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Imagine saying that while 600,000 slaves were being held as chattel in this country, while slavery was a legalized institution in every country in the Americas, when women were largely consigned to the home and unable to vote, while individuals of different religious persuasion were sometimes being burned at the stake, when the death penalty was being carried out in many of the most “advanced” countries by decapitation when it was intended to be “humane,” and by having a team of horses draw and quarter the human body when it was not.
Yet, I hate to think where we would be if these ideals had not been expressed so cogently in these 36 introductory words to our Declaration of Independence.
There is no prevarication here.  Not a bit of wiggle room.  No “ifs, ands or buts.”  No “we believe;” no, “it is our view.”  No “in most circumstances.”  No qualifications whatsoever.  Rather:  “We hold these truths to be self evident.”  Truths we know to be true based on our religious convictions and by our moral reason. These ideals have served and continue to serve as a calling, as a vision, as a justification, and above all, as a mandate to move forward.  Again and again, for example in speech after speech, letter after letter, President Lincoln, whose 200th birthday we celebrate this year, anchored his opposition to slavery in the Declaration’s articulation of the right of every person to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
And the world has progressed.  Slavery, legal in every country in the Americas at the time of the Declaration of Independence, is now legal in none.  Torture, while far from extinct, draws the greatest scrutiny not only when practiced by our enemies but by ourselves.  We talk about abolishing the death penalty altogether.  We, in the U.S, have elected our first black president.  I shake my head as I remind myself that in the year I joined P&G (1963), there were still high schools that only allowed black boys to swim on Friday, then cleaning out the pool over the weekend so the white boys could swim from Monday to Thursday.
The peoples of Eastern Europe risked their lives (and many gave them) in the late 1980s and early 1990s that had been denied for decades.  Anyone approaching my age will remember the inspiring scene of hundreds of thousands of people joined together in Wenceslas Square in Prague just 20 years ago demanding their freedom and freedom came as it did shortly thereafter in Romania and Bulgaria and Ukraine and the other countries of Eastern Europe.  And then there is South Africa, lifted from the plague of white apartheid thanks to the courageous and persistent leadership of Nelson Mandela and the hundreds of thousands who supported him.
Of course none of these advances was obtained easily or quickly.  It was one thing—and a great and bold thing—to author and sign the Declaration of Independence.  It was another to WIN that independence. That took a war and the sacrifice of thousands of lives.  That sacrifice was made by many of those who signed that Declaration.  Of the 59 signers, five were captured and tortured by the British; nine fought and died in the Revolutionary War; 12 had their homes ransacked and burned by the British.  No, freedom is not free.
Before slavery’s legal status was ended, an estimated two million enslaved men and women had died aboard ships bringing them to the Americas and hundreds of thousands more died fighting for their freedom after they had arrived.  People of all races and creeds risked and gave their lives as part of the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights movements which were determined to make real the freedom pledged in the Emancipation Proclamation.
 No, freedom is not free.  It takes courage and stamina.  It requires that people stand up for what they believe to be the moral right of every person to be all they can be.
Yet, there has been progress.  I cite this not as a source of self-satisfaction and even less a justification for any sense of complacency but rather as a source of hope and of energy and courage to continue on.  And continue on we must for the gap between “what is” and “what ought to be” is still very great.
We take satisfaction from the reduction of nuclear warheads held by Russia and the United States but have to recognize that the use of even a fraction of the thousands that remain would end civilization, as we know it.  And new countries are developing these weapons as you read this.
Yes, slavery has been outlawed virtually everywhere as an institution.  Yet, there are an estimated 27 million people held in bondage and other forms of contemporary slavery, including sex trafficking.
Women continue to be denied education, the right to vote and work, and other natural rights in far too many parts of the world.  In our own country, tens of millions of people are without health care insurance; the drop-out rates in our major urban areas continue to hover near 50%; the cry to improve our childhood development and educational outcomes in The Nation at Risk report of 1983 is still there 26 years later, even more so given the competitive global world in which we live. 
While more conscious of the need to act responsibly to protect our planet environmentally, the gap between where we are and where we need to be is very large.
Yet, still, with all we have to do we should not be discouraged.  I have experienced and learned more than enough in my 70 years on this earth to know that man has the capability for great good and considerable evil.  We are a mixture of instincts, drives and motivations.  Yet history shows that with perseverance and courage and acting in line with that basic instinct to do what we believe is right and put ourselves in the other persons’ shoes and, yes, sometimes with a bit of luck we can – and we have – made progress.  Major progress.  Progress that in earlier times seemed inconceivable.  If in the 233 years since this country’s founding slavery has been eliminated as a legal institution, if life expectancy in the developed world has been extended by over 20 years, if women have achieved the right to vote and receive education and take leadership positions, if the countries of Western Europe instead of having a war every 30 or 40 years are joined together in a strong if not perfect economic union, if Russia and the United States can become allies on many important matters, who is to say we cannot make major progress against the most important issues of our day!
As Susan Neiman says in her excellent book Moral Clarity, the demand today is not to abandon the ideals of our youth.  What we must abandon is the na├»ve belief that they will be completely fulfilled.  The abyss that separates “is” from “ought” is too deep to bridge entirely.  But we can narrow it and narrow it significantly and to do that we need the same kind of visionary and uncompromisingly expressed belief and goal that the authors of the Declaration of Independence articulated 233 years: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights (including) life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Very few of us will be called upon to risk our lives in the name of Freedom as were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, or the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, or President Lincoln, or the protestors still on the streets of Teheran.  But we will be asked to do something still challenging and less dramatic.  We will be asked to live for and make a difference in supporting the dignity and potential of others whose lives we touch.  Much of this can be considered banal, acts that can be hard to recognize as heroic: caring for a sick relative or friend, mentoring a young child, helping out at a soup kitchen.  The best lives combine both the great and the good. 
Again, as Susan Neiman writes, heroism that stays alive is harder to notice precisely because it is impure, hazy and jumbled.  Ordinary goodness is fraught with veins of vanity and self-interest and above all with pleasure, because goodness makes one feel alive.  But that does not detract from its adding to the dignity and happiness we can provide to the lives of others.
So I say:  there is much to do.  And it is urgent that we go about this work for today’s generation and for all that follow.  There are more than adequate grounds for hope that we can do this.  Hope anchored in the progress that has been made in the past.  Hope fired by the inspiration provided by individuals who have fought valiantly on their own behalf and on behalf of others for Freedom.  Individuals who bring to life those values of courage and perseverance and cooperation that at our best will lead all of us to do all we can in our circle of influence to advance the personal dignity and freedom for those whose lives we touch.

*I wrote these reflections on July 4th, 2009