Thursday, March 14, 2013

In Trouble

If Eleanor Roosevelt offers to help the new pope, we hope he'll accept.

Because members of the Society of Jesus have vowed never to seek high office in the church, it is customary for them to turn down honors such as the episcopate.  By custom, at least, they need to be asked a second time, or even a third.  We have no idea whether the new pope needed a second ballot to confirm the one which had elected him.  It seems unlikely, but it would make a dramatic story.

In any case, his election has set us thinking about the burden and joy of leadership.  There is a story about the day that Harry S Truman had this burden thrust upon him, told by the historian David McCullough:
... Truman was having a drink with Sam Rayburn in what was euphemistically known as the "Board of Education." It was Rayburn's hideaway beneath the House side where they would meet for a drink after work every day. And Truman on getting the message ... that he was to come at once to the White House, left Rayburn's office and ran back to his own office, his Vice President's office, on the Senate side. 
It was a long run. ... Truman said later that it ... didn't occur to him that the President was dead. He thought the President had come back from Warm Springs secretly and wanted to confer with him about something. But if he didn't think that the President was dead, why was he running? And if he did know the President was dead, what did he think he was running toward and what was he running away from? If it were a movie or a film, you could almost see a freeze frame on that moment where he's running down the hall. Of course, by then he's President of the United States, and he's running alone. He has no Capitol guards ... running with him. He's running alone. 
He had to have known if he wasn't even admitting it to himself. He had to have known subconsciously. It must have been a dreadful time for him. 
Then he arrives at the White House. He goes up to family quarters, and he steps off the elevator. Mrs. Roosevelt comes forward and puts her hand on his arm and says to him very softly, "Harry, the President is dead." 
I feel that that's a very revealing moment about Harry Truman when you think of how he might have responded. At first he couldn't say anything. But when he was able to speak, he said to her, "Is there anything I can do for you?" And then, of course, she says to him, "No, Harry. Is there anything we can do for you? You're the one in trouble now." 

It's a good story, better for being apparently true.  If you look at it from the perspective of anthropology, this is a rite de passage, and the part where Truman is running alone through the Capitol is the liminal stage, his vision quest.  Eleanor's admonition is the the completion of the ritual, and the first affirmation of his new identity.

Even without that spin, this story is worth telling.  Taking on a new position of leadership -- pope, pastor, executive, committee chair or what have you -- is trouble.  You can't, and shouldn't, do it alone. And if Mrs. Roosevelt wants to help, for pete's sake let her.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

good point to keep in mind always. kc