Separating Wheat from the Chaff

The political season is upon us once again as candidates almost too innumerable to count seek the presidency. Somewhere one can only hope that a leader will emerge who understands and lives the virtue of selfless service to the nation.

Some are born to lead at least as we understand what it means to lead. Others are formed in the crucible of severe trials, arising at a moment of crisis when others despair or are broken by extreme stress. Once we had a ready supply of heroes and heroines, those who put themselves to the most extreme tests and persevered under incredible hardship.

Our grandparents were fortunate in that the late 19th and early 20th century provided multiple opportunities for genuine heroes to rise to public recognition. One such man was Ernest Shackleton, famed explorer of the arctic regions. He participated in three major arctic explorations during which his ability to motivate his men and most importantly, keep them alive, became his reason for notoriety in the early 20th century. His second Antarctic expedition came within 97 geographic miles of the South Pole, whereupon, faced with the prospect of almost certain death of his men from starvation if he continued, he made the decision to turn back, even though it cost him the fame of being “the first” to reach the South Pole. A remark later attributed to him was that “it was his duty to bring his men out of the cold.” Another explorer achieved the honor of being “first to the South Pole” but Shackleton continued his quest for polar exploration.

In his last expedition attempting to cross the polar seas his ship “Endurance” became trapped in sea ice and was crushed. He kept his men alive for another year under incredible conditions, even making a 720-mile voyage in an open lifeboat to obtain rescue for his men stranded on a rocky, polar island. He succeeded and obtained brief fame, but died in debt and obscurity until his exploits were given new life by historians long after his death. Shackleton is an icon of leadership under the harshest of conditions, putting the welfare of his men above his own at every turn.

One hopes that those seeking the highest office in the land have similar qualities. Once upon a time we expected those in high office to demonstrate a lifetime of integrity, sacrifice and personal courage, both moral and physical. Teddy Roosevelt demonstrated personal courage in his leadership of the First Volunteer Cavalry in the Spanish American War as a Regimental Commander, personally leading his unit in a charge up the hills of San Juan under murderous enemy fire. Supported by the regular Army all-black 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry, Roosevelt’s unit carried the day and made the Spanish positions defending Santiago untenable and led to a rapid ending of the war. Roosevelt inspired the nation and the Republican Party placed him on the “ticket” as Vice-President to William McKinley. President McKinley’s assassination placed Vice-President Roosevelt into the office of President. His trial by fire prepared Teddy as no experience could, as having faced death the machinations of mere politicians were hardly intimidating. Roosevelt stormed through the Washington establishment like a tornado in a chicken farm. His eldest son, Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt III, modeled his life after his father, landing at Utah Beach at Normandy on “D-Day” in 1944. Insisting on sharing the hardships of his troops, he landed with the first wave of soldiers. He was killed in action, earning the Medal of Honor for his actions at Normandy.

Thousands of men and women display extraordinary courage under difficult circumstances when the moment arises; most are quite ordinary people by worldly standards, not having great wealth, fame or even incredible skill. Something needs to be done and they act; most are never recognized, especially in military service.

One such hero is Captain John Ripley, a Marine officer serving in South Vietnam in the Spring of 1972 during the North Vietnamese “Easter Offensive.” Approaching the Dong Ha Bridge, a North Vietnamese armored column was held up by a battalion of South Vietnamese Rangers advised by Ripley, who then proceeded to mine the bridge with explosives. For over two hours, while repeatedly exposed to fierce enemy fire, Ripley hauled 50lb explosive charges underneath the superstructure of the bridge, successfully detonating the charges and halting the enemy column of tanks. Ripley was given the Navy Cross and then quietly served out another 20 years of service until his retirement. Most Americans have never heard of him or a thousand others like him.

Hopefully, we’ll look beyond the hype of political candidates and search for a life of integrity, personal sacrifice and candidates that accept responsibility for failure as well as success. Prayerfully, we’ll seek candidates that put the country before party and the nation before ego and ambition.

Written by Al Fonzi
5th District Chairman, Republican Party, SLO County
Past President, SLO County Lincoln Club

First printed in Atascadero News article 7 August 2015

Comments are closed.