A regular reader asked me to comment on the above dialogue from the movie, The American President. Here is the transcript:
Lewis: People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
President: Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.
With the caveat that these are “off the top of my head” thoughts, I’d briefly say this. I think Lewis is right and the President is partially right.
Lewis is correct when he says that almost everyone wants leadership and guidance and most of us tend to follow others who appear authoritative. And, if after following we don’t end up where we want, we’ll either drink something else the authority offers or find another authority. I’d only add that usually people never discover they were misled. But I agree with Lewis’ main point—people are starving for someone to lead them, to give them truth and meaning no matter how ridiculous or harmful is the sand they’re given. For particularly terrible examples think Scientology or Jonestown.
I agree with the President that we’ve had illiterate (and clinically psychotic) presidents who many people worship, and I think he’s also right that many people don’t know the difference between competent, virtuous leadership and the opposite. But I think he’s wrong when he says they don’t drink the sand because they are thirsty. We’re all thirsty for truth and meaning.
So I think we often accept horrific leadership both because we’re thirsty and because we can’t differentiate good leadership from bad, truth from falsity. To reiterate, I’ve only thought about this for a few minutes.