Mark Hillman’s Capitol Review - The Power of Silence
My late father often reprimanded my loquacious tendencies by quoting Proverbs 10:19: “In the multitude of words, sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”
The passing of Queen Elizabeth II reminds me of that wisdom because her 70 years as ceremonial monarch of England shows the power of silence. If my parents were still here, they would rightfully remind me that I could learn from her example.
In Great Britain, the Prime Minister – somewhat like our President – is “head of government,” but the King or Queen is “head of state,” a figurehead whose job is to be a unifying symbol of the country.
For 70 years, Elizabeth understood that her role was to remain strictly neutral in political matters – even avoiding tacitly signaling her preference. In doing so, she stayed above political fireworks and provided institutional counsel to whichever party led government. She remained so personally popular that those who aim to dissolve the monarchy put those plans aside while she was alive.
While many criticize the royal family’s privileged and coddled lifestyle, the person serving as monarch certainly does sacrifice a great deal of individual autonomy to stand as the enduring symbol of the country.
When Elizabeth became Queen at age 25 in 1952, people had a greater sense of self-discipline and decorum than today. She certainly had opinions, but she kept them to herself. Consequently, she became the embodiment of her country’s heritage and was held in greater esteem than even popular political leaders.
Today, any young adult who could shoulder that awesome responsibility and refrain from commenting on issues of the day would be truly exceptional, although those exceptions surely do exist.
Now, contrast the role of the Queen with that of recent American political leaders, who display little of the “sacred honor” of our founders.
Leaders in both parties could benefit from holding their tongues: by not publicly expressing their every thought, by devoting more time to the unglamorous work of keeping our country safe and solvent, and by spending far less time boasting about themselves or bashing their political foes.
That’s especially relevant for our heads of state. “Shooting from the lip” should not be considered a desirable trait for a President. We can pray for the day when a candidate earns the favor of Americans by demonstrating grace and class rather than being less loathsome than his or her opponent. Once elected, it’s not enough to be “not Hillary Clinton” or “not Donald Trump.”
The office of President is bigger than the person elected to it, and those we elect – to any office – must rediscover that “it’s not about me.” Even though Presidents are elected from political parties, they become President of the United States.
Recent Presidents have forgotten this. Worse still, they purposefully antagonize Americans with opposing viewpoints, from Barack Obama calling conservatives “bitter clingers,” to Donald Trump’s litany of gratuitous insults against anyone who opposed him, to Joe Biden’s latest vilification of “MAGA Republicans.”
Today, Americans don’t need any encouragement to squabble with each other — certainly not from our President.
Despite his very narrow election, JFK’s optimism and charisma helped him remain overwhelmingly popular until his untimely death. Ronald Reagan rallied Americans to rebuild our economy and regain the initiative against the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton, despite his lack of personal self-discipline, didn’t lash out after his party’s drubbing in 1994 but tacked to the middle, proclaiming “the era of big government is over.” George W. Bush brought confidence and reassurance after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Obviously, our Presidents cannot be silent on political issues, but they should always strive to leave office with the country stronger and more unified than when they started. Deepening divisions for political gain is reprehensible regardless of who does it.
Each of us can choose to set this example for our leaders by spending less time criticizing things we don’t like and more time helping our neighbors and seeking those things that we can do together despite our differences.
You’re right, Dad: that’s especially good advice for me, too.