Let’s see — how many reasonably qualified Democrats are running for president? So many that President Trump hasn’t even bothered to give most of them derogatory nicknames, a particularly irritating (and effective!) campaign strategy in 2016.
Once the frontrunners manage to sort themselves out, they can expect to be honored by a Trumpian tag, but until then they can proceed in relative anonymity. Meanwhile, they’re busy raising money and touting their leadership credentials.
In our constitutional republic, it’s our job to identify leaders. Sometimes we do a good job, sometimes we screw up. As the 2020 Democratic primaries and the Nov. 3 general election draw near, Democrats need to consider leadership.
Despite all the books, seminars and TED Talks, leadership may be a gift, not a craft. We have traits to identify it — for example, one who is accountable, decisive and able to listen. Veteran politicians like to think of themselves as “battle-tested,” but they aren’t.
This came to mind while I was reading the unpublished autobiography of a friend’s grandfather, Les Kent. Born in Texas in 1924, Kent endured poverty, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl before his family moved to Colorado and settled in Saguache. After Pearl Harbor, the 17-year-old enlisted in the Navy. In mid-1943 he was a sonar operator on the USS Borie, a destroyer on a task force hunting U-boats in the North Atlantic.
He wasn’t happy with the Borie’s new captain, 30-year-old Lt. Cdr. Charles Hutchins.
“We knew immediately that it would be a different ball game,” Kent wrote. “Hutch was gung ho and a glory-hound, with little or no concern of the crew’s morale or well-being.”
On Nov. 1, 1943, the Borie engaged a submarine that had surfaced alongside it. The crew attempted to ram the enemy submarine but a huge wave lifted the Borie’s bow onto the foredeck of the U-boat. A pitched battle ensued, fought entirely with small arms. Eventually the U-Boat crew surrendered and abandoned ship, signaling a nearby U-Boat in the process.
The hull was pierced and the engine room flooded, so the Borie’s crew withdrew and contacted its consorts. Faced with a full Atlantic gale in icy waters, Hutchins and the crew struggled vainly to save the ship. With the three other members of the task force standing by, they abandoned ship at nightfall. Though no one had died during the battle, 27 men drowned in the rough seas and cold water.
Captain and crew were immediately dubbed American heroes.
“Life Magazine wrote a fairly accurate account of the episode,” Kent wrote, “with the exception of glorifying Hutch who was awarded the Navy Cross. Oh well, no further comment on that.”
In a later addendum to the official report, Kent credited the Borie’s executive officer, Lt. Phil Brown, who had both prepared the crew for such a side-by-side encounter and commanded the entire action from the bridge, armed with a tommy gun.
Reading other contemporary accounts, it’s clear that Hutchins was a brave, capable and distinguished officer, as was Brown. The crew loved Brown and disliked Hutchins. Assigned in late December to Hutchins’ new command, the USS J. Fred Talbot, the 60 survivors of the Borie’s crew refused to report on board, suspecting that Hutchins had volunteered to take the old four-stacker on some sort of suicide mission.
“We could all hear Hutch shouting at the top of his voice for us to get our asses aboard or get court-martialed for mutiny,” Kent wrote, “so we all did an about-face and marched back down the dock.”
There were no court-martials, no reprimands and no suicide missions. The Navy gave the men another week’s liberty and arranged for them to meet with Phil Brown who told them that the Talbot would only be doing limited escort duty. Mollified, the former Bories reported aboard.
The 18 Democrats who have jumped into the presidential race (and two or three who have yet to declare) would have us believe that they can bring Brown’s compassion and Hutch’s steely determination to the White House. One will make it to the final two.
Les Kent died in 2012, after a rich and adventurous life. In these contentious times, it’s difficult to imagine the grace, heroism and imperfection of the kids who fought that terrible war. To honor them, let us choose a leader who will protect and preserve their country — and ours.