Commentary By Wallace B. Henley, Exclusive Columnist| Wednesday, September 01, 2021
One gets the disconcerting sensation that leadership is absent from the gates of the nation.
“I’m not supposed to take any questions,” said the president recently at FEMA headquarters as he was briefed on actions to help those slammed by Hurricane Ida.
A Fox News writer noted, “President Joe Biden has repeatedly implied that his handlers set the rules and determine when and where he’s allowed to take questions from the press, leading observers to ponder who is actually calling the shots behind the scenes.”
And who is telling the president which reporters to call on at press conferences?
White House staffs often suffer the delusion that the voters elected them.
It is the way of hubris, and there is hardly a greater bastion of hubris than the White House. Every time presidents forget this, they vacate their seat in the gates and give it to the bureaucracy.
However, it takes a strong president to tell the gate-usurpers to get out of the way.
A wise leader will give due consideration to the advice of his or her staff. But a foolish leader loses functional leadership when he or she becomes a sycophant of aides, assistants, counselors, cabinet officers, functionaries, and all the other animals who inhabit the zoo of big agencies — the White House being the biggest animal house of all.
When the leader hands over his or her place in the gates to the functionaries, the Don Beard maxim becomes true. Don and his wife, Mary Kay, were important players in the founding, with Charles Colson, of Prison Fellowship. Both had served prison time, and both were thoroughly converted followers of Jesus Christ. They served with me in two churches where I was pastor.
Don had seen chaos in prisons he had inhabited, and, when things got wild in any institutional setting, would say, “the inmates are running this place.” Then he would turn serious, pointing out the need for strong leadership to arise and manage the situation.
Sadly, the Biden White House “inmates” seemed to have seized the gates of leadership, and the president has become the sycophant rather than the superior. If this be the case, there is chaos in the gates. Biblical history shows that whatever happens in the gates of leadership, for good and bad, determines what happens in the city, and what happens in the city dictates what happens in the nation.
The gates always are up for grabs. A Darwinian strain constantly runs through places of great power like the White House, in which the survival of the fittest becomes a wrestling match, or a shoving contest to see who can snuggle up closest to the president in the gates.
On top of all the other crises America faces, now comes this threatening issue about who controls the president. Who really sits in the gates of the nation at this precarious moment?
As I noted in a previous column, cities, in antiquity, were to be sanctuaries of order. They were walled off from the chaos outside. Mighty gates maintained the order of the city. But everything depended on who occupied the gates, and what they were willing, or could be bribed and cajoled to allow in. According to Isaiah 14, Lucifer’s aim is to “overthrow cities” to achieve his goal of bringing chaos to the world. That assault works its way incrementally through institutions crucial for the cosmos-order of society — families, churches, schools, businesses, civil governments right up to the White House itself.
To fend off the assault on the gates by hubristic bit-players, a leader must discern the pretentious from the principled advice that should be heeded. That leader must give attention to the character he invites into the gates with him or her because, as Proverbs 29:8 (MSG) puts it, “A gang of cynics can upset a whole city; a group of sages can calm everyone down.”
As a low-level presidential aide in the Nixon White House, I had the privilege of serving under two “sages.” One was Harry S. Dent, who at one point had been in Nixon’s inner circle. However, Harry ultimately found himself banished from that elite group. He later found the reason was because senior people said Harry was “too much of a ‘Boy Scout’.”
After leaving the White House, Harry, an able lawyer, went to Bible College, and became the leader of the Billy Graham Center in North Carolina. Harry was a “sage” and Nixon’s presidency might have been saved had the president insisted Harry was going to sit in the “gates.”
I also worked under the leadership of another great Washington “sage” — Dr. George Shultz. Our team had been charged by the president to help school systems in 11 southern states implement the largest school desegregation in history. Emotions were intense, chaos threatened, violence loomed. I traveled with Shultz in those states as he gave counsel to leaders in government, business, and education. I watched his wise and calm guidance put cooling streams on blistering landscapes. And by the way, school systems in all 11 states were peacefully integrated in the fall of 1970.
Richard Nixon had been smart enough to pull George Schultz into the gates of power with him.
Joe Biden, as any president, must seek good counsel, but because of his issues with aging — whether merely perceived or actual — he does need wise advisors, and he needs to be able to discern the hubristic from the truly humble public servants.
Pray that he will surround himself with “a group of sages.”