Dwight Eisenhower was among the leading warriors of the “greatest generation”. A career soldier he emerged from World War II as supreme commander and hero. It brought him to the presidency in 1952. Throughout his tenure, he remained a warrior, this time with aid of the Dulles brothers, in an oft times chilling Cold War. For sure Ike had accomplishments during his tenure, perhaps most notably launching in interstate highway system that connects us, east to west and north to south. But perhaps most quoted and thus remembered was the general’s brief end-of-term speech warning about the dangers of “the military-industrial complex”. He lived in a time when points of view and ideology were less fixed and where evolving and sometimes dramatically changing opinions were lauded not scorned. He appointed two Republicans and two Democrats to the Supreme Court, a notion that would be unthinkable today. Two of those appointees, one of each party, moved sharply from the middle or right of center to what would today be considered the far left ¾ Chief Justice Earl Warren and Associate William Brennen. Their votes in Brown, led to the civil rights revolution that ultimately facilitated electing Barack Obama our president.
I’ve been thinking of Eisenhower’s era in the last few days and how very much has changed in our politics, especially as we face the presidential election just weeks away. How rare it is to see our politicians or our judges being compelled by experience to modify or even radically change their views. But it isn’t American history that brought all this to mind. Rather it was the death of Shimon Peres who was buried in Israel on Friday. This 93-year-old was a most modern man with his mind on the future tokened in part by his excitement about technology. Looking at his story, and having personally watched it unfold over so many years, I was struck by how much of a throwback he was to an earlier time when change of mind and heart in the face of newly learned realities was a badge of honor.
Like Eisenhower, Peres’ career was formed in warrior days. He was of that generation that faced an immediate and urgent need to defend itself with no established support infrastructure. At founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s behest, a very youthful Peres essentially fathered Israel’s impressive military-industrial complex. He is considered responsible for the country’s never acknowledged nuclear program and later for joining in the ill-fated decision to allow Jewish settlements on the West Bank. It was these life’s experiences and an ability to stand back and evaluate their consequences that compelled Peres to take a sharp turn from warrior to hopeful peace advocate. In fact, like Eisenhower but much more so, Peres now is remembered most as the man of peace, Rabin’s partner and keeper of the flame in advocating a two-state solution. Peres sought intellectual and economic partnership with Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, seeing their children as his and wanting them to have an equally dignified fulfilling life.
It’s no wonder the President Obama eulogized “Shimon” as a friend and a kindred spirit. “I took great pleasure”, he noted, “in my friendship with this older, wiser man. We shared a love of words and books and history. …Beyond that, I think our friendship was rooted in the fact that I could somehow see myself in his story, and maybe he could see himself in mine. …Both of us had lived such unlikely lives. It was so surprising to see the two of us where we had started, talking together in the White House, meeting here in Israel. And I think both of us understood that we were here only because in some way we reflected the magnificent story of our nations.” Obama saw Peres among “the giants” of our time impacted by necessities so that “…the child who had wanted to be a “poet of stars” became a man who built Israel’s defense industry, who laid the foundation for the formidable armed forces that won Israel’s wars.” But, he went on, “For a younger generation, Shimon was probably remembered more for a peace process that never reached its endpoint.” Some, Obama said, considered him naïve in holding on to the dream of peace, but Peres, more than probably anyone of his generation, had faith in those young people and in the future, in the human ability to change and adapt to new information. What a crazy radical idea.
Peres’s end came days before Jews in Israel and around the world prepare to greet a new year and prepare to make resolutions for the time to come. You may associate this with the kind of resolutions talked about when we celebrate our common new year on January 1. It’s totally different. It’s not about losing those excess pounds, doing more exercise or even finally reading those books at our bedside. Rather the resolution demanded by Rosh Hashanah and the days of contemplation that follow ¾ “the days of awe”¾ are much more fundamental. They start with an evaluation of who we are ¾ what kind of people, what kind of actions mark our lives. After asking forgiveness for what we have done wrong, we resolve to be better and to do better. The assumption here is that in evaluating where we are relative to the real and ideal world we can change; we can alter our previously held notions. How refreshing that would be if our leaders and perhaps more important we ourselves thought in those terms, if we all could be more like Shimon Peres. He was human, imperfect as are we all, but he made the effort and opened his heart, at 93 still actively working for and dreaming of a better world.