“I am in control here,” said General Alexander Haig from a White House podium on March 30, 1981. Blocks away, Ronald Reagan, whom Haig had served as a senior military and national security advisor, had been gunned down and was being rushed to a hospital, while Vice President George H.W. Bush was on a flight miles away.
Suddenly, in the eyes of U.S. enemies in the brittle Cold War era, it seemed America was without leadership and that there was an opportune moment to make a grab for power and establish global hegemony.
Jimmy Carter, the previous president, had been perceived as a weak leader by other figures on the international scene. Among his campaign promises was that of ending what he considered the “imperial presidency.” Carter thought a humbler approach was needed. However, he seemed powerless on every hand, ranging from his inability to rescue American hostages in Tehran to lassoing the stagflation that was choking the U.S. economy.
Thus, growly old Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, and others, like the mullahs in charge of Iran, read all that as weakness.
So, according to one Washington narrative, Haig thought it important to let Brezhnev and others know that weak Carter was no longer around, and just because Reagan might be at the threshold of death, and Bush was out in the clouds, that someone decisive and strong was in charge at the White House.
Another narrative was that Haig was a demented military leader who saw an opportunity to exert his power and take over the nation.
Whatever the case, the United States and the world were cast into a dangerous moment when John Hinckley Jr.'s bullet pierced Ronald Reagan.
The most dangerous time for a leader and those whom he or she leads is when there is a loss of authority or the perception of a loss of authority. An authoritative chief — whether chief of state, head of an institution (even a church), or CEO of a business — can quickly become a power-grabber when he or she believes they are losing the authority of leadership.
In the waning hours of the Trump presidency, Nancy Pelosi wanted the Pentagon to take away the nuclear attack codes from Trump. Pelosi’s move shows yet another dangerous potential when a leader is weak or perceived as weak: Those who would seek to get rid of the weakened chief who is losing his or her authority can become themselves power-grabbers.
In our system of government, the branches are to monitor and restrain one another. However, when the restrainers become the grabbers there is an even greater crisis if they become sycophants or enablers of the weak leader’s desperate and often destructive attempts to hold on to power.
The Watergate cover-up, when Nixon and his advisors attempted to protect the Oval Office and its occupant from the Watergate scandal, is an example. Eventually, Nixon’s pragmatism took over, and, when he could see that his leadership was too weakened to deal with the perilous and complex world situation, he resigned.
Now, another looming crisis adds to the danger of our moment. Is the Russia-Ukraine issue a legitimate concern about putting restraint on Putin, or is it an opportunity to make Biden look strong and decisive?
Nikki Haley, who served in the Trump administration as ambassador to the United Nations, opined recently that Vladimir Putin and those of his ilk believe Biden to be “the weakest president in history,” and this is what is tempting Putin to make a military move against Ukraine.
But there’s an even greater danger: Some leaders, recognizing the ebbing of their authority, have launched wars to give them an opportunity to prove their strength. Napoleon, for example, started battles because he could. He loved to strut across burning landscapes, demonstrating his power. Later European heads of state showed their Napoleonic streak leading up to the First World War. That conflict was a tragically devastating arena for weakened would-be despots grabbing for power.
One is haunted by the example back in the time of King Saul, and his desperate grasp for power as he was increasingly weakened. Saul’s failure to heed the warnings of Samuel, whose credibility had been proven, caused weak Saul to lose his authority. The result was that Saul could no longer receive God’s guidance. The anguish in the king’s heart and mind became so great he stepped out from under the authority of God and brought himself under the authority of spiritual darkness in the form of a pagan witch.
All authentic authority flows from the higher to the lower and is given only to people who are under rightful authority. When Saul recognized the scope of his rebellion and could feel the hand of God’s authority being lifted off him, he slammed head-on into the reality that he really was weak.
Saul’s nation suffered the results of having a leader who not only perceived his weakness but had to face the hard fact that he was indeed too weak to lead.
The greater question now is whether America’s leadership for good across the world has been weakened as an increasingly neurotic and narcissistic nation wonders about the strength of its own leader.
No witch and her brew can save us. The strength that is a blessing rather than cruel domination or self-absorption comes from the recognition and reception of the power of the transcendent Lord. This is not weakness, but humility.
Pray without ceasing because this is a dangerous moment. And don’t forget to mention Joe Biden, no matter how you feel about him.
Wallace Henley is a former White House and Congressional aide. He is now a teaching pastor at Grace Church, The Woodlands, Texas. Wallace is author of more than 20 books, including God and Churchill, and his newest, Who Will Rule the Coming 'gods: The Looming Spiritual Crisis of Artificial Intelligence.