In the movie “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the character of Dr. Abraham Erskine espoused a theory that transcended cinema. For those unfamiliar with the movie, it chronicles the origin story of Captain America. At the outset, Cap, also known as Steve Rogers, is a physically diminutive man with an enormous heart.
Having often been the victim of bullying himself, Rogers wanted nothing more than to join in his country’s fight against the ultimate bully: Hitler. His weak physical stature prevented him from doing so, until his pivotal meeting with Dr. Erskine. The doctor asked him why he persisted in enrolling in the Army, amid consistently being labeled “4F.” His answer was just what Dr. Erskine was looking for. Rogers said, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they come from.”
What Dr. Erskine was looking for; what led him to choose Rogers to receive the super soldier serum, was character. He realized that strength is not only a physical characteristic; that strength of character was far more important than any physical attribute. On its face, the serum makes a person more physically powerful, and that is what enables them to defeat the enemy. But the Doctor explains to Rogers that the serum does not simply amplify physical characteristics. More importantly, it also enhances character. He explains, “The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse. That is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows…compassion.”
Dr. Erskine had one request for Rogers, “…you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are, not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” That is the same promise asked of the American people, when they confer the power of governance upon leaders with their vote. Inherent in that choice resides an understanding that the leader will strive to maintain integrity and exemplary character. It is something that has been expected of, and at least somewhat fulfilled by most of our leaders, until now.
In the case of the Trump administration, such implicit trust continues to be violated. The revelation that Attorney General Sessions (in his interview for the position he currently holds) lied under oath to his fellow colleagues in the Senate, further impugns the faith of the American people in their newly elected leaders. Think about it: the country’s chief law enforcement officer lied under oath. And he lied about meeting twice with the Russian ambassador, someone the government also acknowledges as a chief Russian spy and spy recruiter.
Russia is an adversary of ours, yet it is also a country to whom the President and some of his advisers are rumored to have close ties. It should be noted that Sessions met with the ambassador privately, in his office, in September of 2016 – in the heat of the presidential election, and in the shadow of then Candidate Trump’s public plea to the Russians to sabotage the Clinton Campaign. This is just the latest example of a campaign surrogate-turned-administrative insider (former National Security Adviser Flynn being the other), being disgraced by connections to the same Russian ambassador. Connections which they initially sought to deny.
What all great leaders have in common, whether in the office, a comic book character, or those in the seat of government, is their strength of character; especially the attributes of integrity and humility. The strong moral character of Steve Rogers is what made Captain America the hero he was. His intrinsic desire to protect Americans from the bullies who sought to harm them; to fight for what is good, and to defend it from evil. His willingness to stand up for what is right, for those who cannot defend themselves, and to do so with a servant’s heart.
Those same qualities are observed in other great leaders throughout history. Presidents Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan dared to not only protect us from our foes, but to also simultaneously raise the bar for their citizens, and challenged them to be the best version of themselves. It should be noted that these men also were underdogs in one way or another; all of them had known what it was like to be a long shot, and treated power with more reverence once they attained it.
What is observed time and again within the Trump administration is a textbook example of Dr. Erskine’s theory of power. After taking the oath of office, it is easy to observe how power has amplified the true character of those that currently hold it, particularly with regard to issues relating to Russia. President Trump has continued to obscure the facts regarding his tax returns, business holdings, and connections to Russia.
Steve Bannon has openly stated his desire to deconstruct the country’s political infrastructure. And now it is revealed that Attorney General Sessions lied under oath, not only to his Senate colleagues, but to the American people as well. Conversely, we also see the steadfast commitment to true American morals and values by those such as Secretary of Defense Mattis, Ambassador to the UN Haley, and National Security Adviser McMaster, who do so despite knowing many of their peers do not support them.
In closing, integrity matters. Humility matters. American morals and values matter. No matter who minimizes them. Even if many of our current leaders fail to espouse them, it does not diminish their importance. We should never stop doing so, either, and should expect the leaders we choose in the future to value and espouse them as well. Dr. Erskine’s theory is always right.