The invitation to speak 4 times in New Zealand in March 2020 resulted in conversations with marvelous people in a beautiful country. NZ consists of 2 large islands and 600 smaller islands with a population of 5 million. Cynthia and I traveled with Jim Symons and Patty Compeau. Jim, who has been to NZ 11 times, set up presentations in Auckland, Wellington, Palmerston North, and Dunedin.
I titled my talks “Leadership at a Crossroads.” I spoke about the rise of authoritarian leaders and the characteristics of their leadership—especially their attacks on judicial systems that might hold them accountable. I then used Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address to lift up qualities of leadership we need today.
At 24 I lived for three months in Bogota, Colombia. Here I first learned that when you cross borders 3 things can happen: (1) you learn about another country and culture; (2) you learn about your own country; (3) you can learn about yourself. I wondered how these guidelines would play out in New Zealand.
(1) Learning about New Zealand
On Sunday morning, March 1, we worshipped at the Somervell Presbyterian Church in Auckland, the nation’s largest ciy, where I was to speak that evening. That morning the church honored the 50th anniversary of the kindergarten housed in the church. Fifty five-year-olds took over the sanctuary. The minister asked the children, “What makes you sad today?” The first child answered: “climate change.” The third child replied: “Trump’s Wall.” Five-year-olds in New Zealand!
All though those first days people talked about their Prime Minister. Jacinda Adern, elected at age 37, won the hearts of her country with her leadership of compassion in responding to the horrific shootings at two mosques in Christchurch on March 15, 2019, that killed 51 people. Within days she called for a total ban on all military assault rifles, “It’s about all of us, it’s in the national interest and its about safety.” On April 10, the Parliament voted 119-1 to ban these rifles. By December 21, a buy-back program resulted in more than 56,000 assault rifles turned in. Starting in the 2nd lecture, I began by quoting her: “I really rebel against this idea that politics has to be a place full of ego, where you constantly focus on scoring points against one another. Yes, we need a robust democracy, but you can be strong and kind.”
(2) Learning about the United States
One reason I enjoy speaking to diverse groups is what I learn from the audience. I have been privileged to speak about Lincoln in England, France, Germany, Italy, and Mexico. When I began speaking nationally I determined that whenever I was asked about a current president or a contemporary issue I would borrow a response from author David McCullough: “I am an historian.”
NZ audiences would not let me get away with that response. Right away, a Professor of Government at one of NZ’s leading universities, spoke up: “I hope I will not offend you, but I teach politics, and I want to say why I think Donald Trump is a horrible leader.” Everywhere people wanted to express their “dismay” and “disbelief” at our president. Three of the venues were Presbyterian churches and invariably people in these churches asked the question: “Why are Christians, why are church people, supporting him?”
(3) Learning About Ourselves [and Lincoln]
During this past year I have begun presentations on Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant by observing that we read biographies for at least two reasons. First, they offer us examples from the past. Second, biographies holds up a mirror to the present.
New Zealand provided a mirror. I expected to find a beautiful country, but my most lasting impression was the civility I encountered each day and in each audience. And people well-informed about history—American history—and contemporary politics.
In speaking with audiences beyond the United States, I am fascinated to learn what they find interesting in Lincoln—some encountering him and his words for the first time. Several people focused on Lincoln’s “inclusivity.” In the 2nd Inaugural he refused to blame the South, but kept using the words “all” and “both” to pull a divided nation together. By contrast, authoritarian leaders are full of blame: Muslims, Jews, migrants. We concluded each time by saying aloud Linoln’s concluding words, “With malice toward none; with charrity for all.”