British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously contrasted the hedgehog, who does one big thing, and the fox, who does many things. This was a particularly apt metaphor for Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, as the former sought to win the Cold War and revitalize American commerce and the latter despaired of Americans’ "malaise" just as the long Iranian hostage crisis began to undermine his presidency. Reagan was under considerable pressure from his strongest supporters to solve a host of long-festering problems and certainly Reagan never lacked convictions for confronting them. But he was convinced that national security and world peace demanded his greatest efforts, which culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Empire. He built up our armed forces and thereby negotiated from strength with our less capable communist adversary.
No less demanding was the need to encourage vitality in our stagnant commerce, buffeted by decreasing purchasing power and increasing unemployment, with cuts in income tax rates. Unfortunately, we are currently in the beginnings of a resurgence of big government that we gained some relief from a quarter century ago.
Berlin was mindful of other statesmen of a similar single-minded determination. His countryman, Winston Churchill, set out to save Great Britain from defeat to a Nazi tyranny which had already conquered most of Europe, and ultimately helped save Western Civilization from collapse.
Such is statesmanship. Is George Washington remembered by anyone except historians for the positions he took on tariffs, excises or treaties? He devoted himself to winning independence from Great Britain, providing a national constitution and serving as the first president. A multitude of lesser problems survived him but so did the nation.
Our greatest national challenge came in 1861 when 11 states defied the results of a presidential election and its mandate for stopping the spread of slavery. Abraham Lincoln had hated slavery since childhood and gave it his single-minded attention when the Democratic party resolved to remove all obstacles to its movement into western territories previously closed to it.
Indeed, Lincoln was severely criticized for talking about virtually nothing else after passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed slavery in the old Louisiana Territory. His response was simply, "I’ll stop talking about it when everyone else stops talking about it."
Lincoln was not being perverse. Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, sought to end slavery agitation by removing the controversy from the halls of Congress and throwing it out to the western frontier to be resolved by the first few settlers in territories forming into new states. But his plan backfired as southerners wanted guarantees for slavery and anti-slavery northerners were outraged at a massive equivocation on this fundamental question.
Later, even historians were critical, not only of Lincoln, but also of Douglas, as the two senatorial candidates in 1858 debated slavery in the territories and practically nothing else. Again, tariffs, excises and treaties were ignored as these longtime rivals explored the political, constitutional, legal, social and moral aspects of slavery. How could they be so single-minded?
The answer is, both Lincoln and Douglas understood that, until fundamental principles are resolved, action on other issues not only would have to wait but no prudent solutions for them were possible. If slaves may be taken to new territories, might Congress revive the international slave trade? What principle can distinguish the one form of "commerce" from the other?
No act of statesmanship, no matter how great, can guarantee results forever. Democrats imposed segregation, something very much like slavery, in the Southern states for a century following its official extinction.
Fortunately, no American president after World War II squandered the ascendancy maintained for the Western world, although Carter seriously underestimated the Soviet threat, militarily and strategically. However, the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union opened the door to the long-dormant ambitions of Islamic extremists.
The quarter century of dynamic commerce generated when Reagan persuaded Congress to enact cuts in income tax rates was undermined by out-of-control credit in the federally subsidized housing market, which has corrupted all of finance, even as union contracts and retirement plans, public and private, have proved unsustainable.
Everything depends, then, as it so often does, on the character of the occupant of the Oval Office, for our Constitution designed the government for leadership in the various crises of human affairs. In this rich and powerful country, many things are going on but all pale in comparison to the requirements of the common defense and the general welfare.