Following World War II, fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker worried for America, fearing hatreds would linger in peace, get transferred. He was right. Almost 20 years later, in another letter, he described his perfect presidential candidate. What lingers – from 1963 – is the foresight of a patriot.
Rickenbacker was not opining for public consumption but to a friend. He was not partisan. Reading his recommendations, one is struck almost 60 years later by his wisdom. His words are edifying. They resonate. They hold lessons in a time of objectively poor leadership.
Wrote Rickenbacker: “As we grow older, the years seem to take on an accelerated pace … the longer we live, the shorter they get.” If wisdom has a beginning, that is it.
The patriot becomes self-critical, asks: “What have we accomplished to perpetuate our land of the free and home of brave …” for “posterity,” that “will help to perpetuate for them the blessings that our forefathers left to us?”
He offers a “principle” for choosing a good president, one “whose courage will inspire confidence on the part of all Americans, regardless of color or creed.” Boy, could we use that!
What is this principle, or list of characteristics, for a good president? He offers 13 qualities. As you read them – in this private letter – you may wonder (I did) how did he know?
First, we should want a man “who has convictions, with courage and character to put them into action.” Needed are sincerity of belief, resolve, and ability to fly alone if necessary, keep bearing.
Second, we need a leader “who will not cater to or coddle minorities or pressure groups.” Required is the broad view, perspective, fidelity to democracy, no tails wagging dogs.
Third, we need one “who will think in terms of the welfare of the great American majority.” While non-majority protections populate the Bill of Rights, self-rule rests on the majority.
Fourth, we must seek a president “who will recommend amending our labor laws to protect the American laboring men and women from racketeers and false leadership.” Reward work, assure fair wages, no monopolies or oppression, just clearing markets and common sense.
Fifth, our leader must “respect States’ rights.” When Federal and State goals and methods, means and outcomes, or basic prerogatives clash – the president must respect States’ rights.
Sixth, he warned we need a leader “who will guarantee to return all delegated wartime or national emergency powers to the elected representatives of the people when the emergency is over.” Think executive overreach, the concentration of power, federal COVID mandates – limits.
Seventh, we need someone “who will surround himself with America’s ablest men and women,” not advisors selected on spurious, immaterial, or political bases, but on sheer merit.
Eighth, we need a president “who will eliminate bureaucracy … to a minimum.” Not needed is more bureaucracy, more waste, high cost, low output, overregulation, or self-preservation.
Ninth, we need a leader “who will reduce and keep government expenses within the earning power of our people to pay.” No wild spending, elevated taxes, inflation, or agitation.
Tenth, we should elect a president “who will think in terms of America First in order that America will last, as Adenauer, De Gaulle, and Khrushchev think of their own.” These were the unapologetic leaders of West Germany, France, and the former Soviet Union.
Eleventh, we need a president “who will cooperate with other peoples of the world to ensure lasting peace, but not at the expense of the American people alone.” Think burden-sharing.
Twelfth, we need a leader “who believes in free enterprise and our form of government.” AN advocate of free markets and freedom, not centralized power, socialism, or communism.
Thirteenth, needed is a leader “in whom the American people can place their trust after he is elected, as well as before.” The requirement is integrity, honesty, selfless service.
Rickenbacker encourages his friend, “Let us … dedicate our lives to the perpetuation of the American principles of Freedom with confidence.”
One last element caps fighter ace’s plea as Christmas 1963 approaches. Signing in his hallmark hand, he says: “Let us pray every night for the strength and guidance to inspire in others the gratitude, love and dedication that we owe to this great land of ours, if not for our sake, then for the sake of the generations to come.”
“Let us acknowledge and be grateful for the blessings of freedom which God has given us. Then, and only then, can we say when the candle of life burns low – thank God I have contributed my best to the land that contributed so much to me.”
Here was America’s most decorated WWI fighter ace, a significant contributor to WWII, a survivor of a DC-3 and B-17 crash, President of Eastern Airlines, designer and racer of automobiles, writer, and man of faith – writing to a friend, thinking about the future.
Reflecting on Rickenbacker’s recommendations, one wonders how we got so far off track, our leadership devoid of what he deemed essential, nation adrift – as he was on a raft for 24 days.
When Rickenbacker’s faith, hope, and stamina had faded, and rescue seemed impossible, it happened. He was found, nursed to health, thrived again. The metaphor is imperfect, but – along with this remarkable letter – it reminds us. The great patriot kept his hope. When things seem darkest, often dawn awaits. We must seek that dawn now – and chase it hard to light.