There have been many instances in human history when people were not universally popular with their subjects and citizens. No ruler has ever had unanimous popularity and approval – witness Moshe and Korach, for example – but like everything else in life, popularity is never absolute but only relative. In elections a candidate that achieves a fifty-five percent majority is deemed to have attained a landslide victory even though forty-five percent of the population disapproved of the ruler.
Even in times of absolute rulers such as the monarchial system that existed in the Jewish world of First Temple times, such towering figures as David and Solomon never enjoyed universal approbation, as the revolutions against their rule evidenced. The fact that a portion of the population disapproves of the personality and/or policies of the ruler does not diminish the positive accomplishments of those rulers.
History has the luxury of taking a long view of matters, people, policies and decisions. Most of us have strong, preconceived notions about people and policies. Usually, we do not allow uncomfortable facts to change our preconceived notions. But that is a very temporary and shortsighted view of things that dominate most of our lives. History has often shown us that one generation’s villain may turn out to be another generation’s hero and what appeared to be wrong-headed policies then, turn out to have been prescient wisdom. The true leader has the capacity to shoulder the unpopularity and to make decisions that are temporarily controversial and unpopular.
A leader has to always be cognizant of the fact that even one’s own most convinced and wisest decision may not stand the test of history. Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement to Hitler’s Germany in his mind brought peace for his time. His policy of appeasement was wildly popular at the time, with Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden being the lonely dissenting voices. Yet it turned out rather quickly that the popular Chamberlain and his policies were foolishly wrong, dead wrong, while Churchill became one of the most heroic figures in the annals of the twentieth century.
In Jewish history, the great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai made a fateful choice when he was offered wishes by the then triumphant Roman general and future Emperor Vespasian. Rabbi Yochanan chose the continuity of the yeshiva at Yavneh over other possible options. And he was very firm in his decision, devoting the rest of his life to building and protecting the academy and its students from Roman persecution. Yet at the end of his life he ruefully speculated whether or not he has truly made the correct decision and right choice.
How to believe in one’s decision and follow through on it, and yet retain the realization that history may judge that decision and less charitably, is truly the ultimate challenge and test of wise leadership. It is entirely possible - perhaps even likely - that it is the unpopular leader that is the one that history will view most positively. This is an important factor to remember when judging our leaders and their policies.
Abraham Lincoln, the greatest of American leaders who saved the country, was a wildly unpopular leader. Vilified by most of the press, portrayed pictorially as a gorilla or baboon, hated by the South whose rebellion he was warring and opposed by most of his generals and even cabinet members, Lincoln and his policies have clearly been vindicated by history. There are other examples in American history of the reverse, of temporarily popular leaders who history has discredited and criticized.
It is one of the weaknesses, of our mortal and necessarily temporary viewpoint, that one cannot view the future. Therefore popularity is a very slippery way to judge the correctness of policies and the competence and temper of our leaders. Yet, there is no denial that popularity is a positive asset for any leader. So, like all values and assets in our social world, there is no one thing that guarantees success in governing and in implementing policies.
There is a famous aphorism that has been attributed to Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant though it may be older than that. The saying is that any rabbi of a community that is universally popular and has no critics is not really a rabbi. But any rabbi who is universally unpopular and is a repugnant personality, then that leader is not a mentsch. So we have to be patient, realistic and hopeful about our leaders even if they may not be overwhelmingly popular at some time in their rule.