Before the 2020 Presidentiad begins in earnest….

George Weigel

Americans not obsessed with politics — that is, most Americans — will start  paying serious attention to the 2020 presidential race after the February 3 Iowa caucuses and the February 11 New Hampshire primary — or perhaps after the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries winnow the Democratic field. So before the partisan din rises to ear-shattering volume, there’s some time left for Americans who aren’t entombed in ideological silos to ponder the qualities they would like to see in a president of the United States. I recently came across a description of such qualities.

Some historians regard Dean Acheson, who held the office under President Harry Truman, as the greatest secretary of state in American history. Be that as it may — and partisans of John Quincy Adams, William Seward, and John Hay would certainly enter caveats — I’m prepared to argue that Acheson’s 1969 memoir, Present at the Creation: My Years at the State Department, is the greatest American reminiscence of the author’s public service since the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant were first published in two volumes in 1885-86. Grant wrote beautiful, clean English prose. For literary elegance and continual readability, though, I’d give Acheson the edge, not least because of his delightful habit of dropping a laugh-out-loud zinger into his narrative on occasion.

While seeking distraction from the Baltimore Ravens’ season-ending implosion a few weeks back, I pulled my dog-eared copy of Present at the Creation off the shelf to check a fact. And while rambling through the book, I found Acheson’s  description of distinguished, history-changing political leadership:  “great qualities of heart and brain, indomitable courage, energy, magnanimity, and good sense” wedded to “supreme art and deliberate policy.” These latter, Acheson insisted, “fused the other elements into the leadership that alone can call forth from a free people what cannot be commanded” — which is to do what lesser, more timid spirits imagine cannot be done.

Effective leadership at the highest political level thus demands not only wit and wisdom but dramatic craft that rises above demagogy: the ability to weld style to action in a way that summons forth the best in a democratic nation.

It is often said, today, that we live in unprecedented times, such that the old templates, liberal or conservative, no longer apply. This may be true. But unprecedented times are not unprecedented. Not so long ago, American statesman like Dean Acheson — and Harry Truman, George Marshall, Arthur Vandenberg, and Dwight D. Eisenhower — faced an unprecedented situation of their own. Europe was in ruins. Communist power had consumed China and was being ruthlessly imposed in central and eastern Europe. Great Britain was flat broke and incapable of exercising a major role in world affairs. So the leadership of what then called itself, unapologetically, the “free world” was thrust on the United States.

The bipartisan grand strategy that was developed to meet that challenge eventually saw the country, and the West, through the Cold War. In his memoir, Acheson described that strategic vision (which remains salient today) with characteristic elegance — “to safeguard the highest interest of our nation, which was to maintain as spacious an environment as possible in which free states might exist and flourish” — and outlined the method he and others devised to achieve that end: “common action with like-minded states to secure and enrich [that] environment and to protect one another from predators through mutual aid and joint effort.”

Is such creative political imagination possible today? I would like to think so. But it will only to emerge if the American people have the character to demand it: if “we the people” insist that those who would lead us stop running as identity-politics tropes or ideological memes, stop playing “gotcha” games with other candidates, and stop treating us as if we’re primarily interested in emotional venting rather than leadership in the service of great causes.

At the end of his memoir, Dean Acheson bore witness to what most impressed him about President Truman: “Free of the greatest vice in a leader, his ego never came between him and his job. He saw his job and its needs without distortion from that astigmatism.” Do we, the people, want such leaders today?

A sobering question, to be sure. Christian realism demands that it be asked. Christian hope looks forward to a positive answer, which can only come from a citizenry that has escaped the silos and recommitted itself to the common good.

COMING UP: The Two Popes: Baloney, brilliantly acted

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I first met Pope Emeritus Benedict in June 1988; over the next three decades, I’ve enjoyed many lengthy conversations and interviews with him, including a bracing discussion covering many topics last October 19. I first met Pope Francis in Buenos Aires in May 1982, and have had three private audiences with him since his election as Successor of Peter. Before, during, and after the conclaves of 2005 and 2013, I was deeply engaged in Rome, where my work included extensive discussions with cardinal-electors before each conclave was immured and after the white smoke went up. On both occasions, I correctly predicted to my NBC colleagues the man who would be elected and, in 2013, the day the election would occur.

Thus credentialed, I take up the movie critic’s mantle and say without hesitation that, as history, the Netflix film, The Two Popes, is baloney on steroids. It’s brilliantly acted, sometimes amusing, and occasionally moving. But despite its claim to be “based on actual events,” The Two Popes no more reflects history through which I lived and men I’ve personally known than does Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

The script offers several coruscating moments, perhaps more revealing of the two key personalities than screenwriter Anthony McCarten or director Fernando Meirelles realize. Thus Anthony Hopkins nicely captures Joseph Ratzinger’s dry sense of humor when the cinematic Benedict XVI remarks to Jonathan Pryce/Cardinal Bergoglio, “It’s a German joke; it’s not supposed to be funny.” And then there’s Pryce/Bergoglio’s smiling riposte to a grumpy Benedict XVI who accuses the archbishop of Buenos Aires of egotism: “Do you know how an Argentinian commits suicide? He climbs to the top of his ego and jumps off!” In the main, however, scriptwriter and director trade in stick-figures, however fetching the portrayal of those cartoons by two actors of genius.

Alas, one-dimensional portrayals of popes have been the journalistic and pop-cultural standard ever since the pseudonymous “Xavier Rynne,” writing in the New Yorker, created the liberal/conservative template for Everything Catholic during the Second Vatican Council. Thus it’s even more to the credit of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce that they bring a cartoon Benedict XVI and a cartoon Francis to vibrant life in The Two Popes. What ought not go unremarked, however, are the film’s grave misrepresentations of the dynamics at work in the conclaves of 2005 and 2013.

The script suggests that Joseph Ratzinger wanted to be pope in 2005 and maneuvered before and during the conclave to achieve his ambition. That is rubbish. As I thought I had demonstrated in God’s Choice, my book on the papal transition of 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger actively resisted the efforts of his many admirers to promote his candidacy during the interregnum, saying, “I am not a man of governo [governance].” His friends responded that he should leave matters to the Holy Spirit, and Ratzinger — who had tried to retire three times under John Paul II and who wanted nothing more than to return to Bavaria and pick up the threads of his scholarly life — acceded to their wishes, and to what he believed was God’s will. There was no ambition in all this. On the contrary, there was a touching display of self-knowledge, spiritual detachment, and churchmanship.

As for 2013, The Two Popes suggests that a “reformist” current, frustrated at the conclave of 2005, persuaded the cardinal-electors of 2013 that the Church needed a decisive shift from the magisterium of John Paul II and Benedict XVI  in order to catch up with “the world.” That, too, is rubbish. There was no such consensus among the cardinal-electors in 2013. There was, however, broad agreement that the New Evangelization was being seriously impeded by financial and other corruptions in the Vatican, which had to be vigorously addressed in a new pontificate. And the proponents of Cardinal Bergoglio’s candidacy presented him in precisely those terms — as a tough-minded, no-nonsense reformer who would quickly and decisively clean house. That presentation, reinforced by the Argentine prelate’s Christocentric and evangelically-oriented intervention in the General Congregation of cardinals prior to the conclave’s immurement, was the key to Pope Francis’s election. The notion that Francis was elected to upend the magisterium of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is sheer invention, at least to those who knew what was actually afoot in 2013.

Is there motive here, in advancing this fake-news account of Conclave-2013? Some will undoubtedly find one. I’m content to clarify the historical record.