John Dickerson is co-host of CBS this morning. He is also a Contributing Editor to The Atlantic and the host of the Whistlestop podcast and co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

The power to spark imagination

Since working on the four part trilogy on the Constitutional convention I have been thinking a lot about the role of the president as actor. Those of you who committed to memory the podcast know what it meant in 1787, but what does it mean today? Emerson gives  us one hint. From his “Uses of Great Men,” which I’ve slobbered over before, he writes about the power of ideas to spark the imagination. The “activities” he writes about below are the intellectual skills performed by great figures that are like physical ones:

Foremost among these activities are the summersaults, spells and resurrections wrought by the imagination. When this wakes, a man seems to multiply ten times or a thousand times his force. It opens the delicious sense of indeterminate size and inspires an audacious mental habit. We are as elastic as the gas of gunpowder, and a sentence in a book, or a word dropped in conversation, sets free our fancy, and instantly our heads are bathed with galaxies, and our feet tread the floor of the Pit. And this benefit is real because we are entitled to these enlargements, and once having passed the bounds shall never again be quite the miserable pedants we were.

When leaders do not excite this in us, but it’s opposite, we feel a shrinkage in our public life and we feel dimmunition in the possible. We starve our imagination which means two things: it is given nothing and worse, we are asked to sit in the dark, smelly place where there is no hope at all of anything arriving. The spigot to the wonder described above is turned off. When was the last time you felt that from a public official?

MORE: The point is one Emerson makes earlier in the work: “The aid we have from others is mechanical compared with the discoveries of nature in us.” This is what a leader has given to them by virtue of their position. The power to spark imagination (Ask not, etc.). A leader or president can be good or mediocre at it, but it’s another category altogether when a leader decides this is a tool not to use. Or a tool to use to limit the imagination– to pull the balloon down from the sky.

4 thoughts on “The power to spark imagination”

  1. Stephen Herskovitz

    Hi John … I like Emerson and this particular essay very much. Two things, though. I think Emerson, to a large Desiree, wrote that all of us are both teachers and students and that to depend on the ephemeral nature of leaders and teachers who stay for a while and then pass on is dangerous. Second: Nixon? To quote Nixon in your own essay is really unbelievable … he was a dream-killer and an anti-teacher. The ultimate cynic for his entire career. So, I didn’t get that part at all. Sort of undercut the point you seemed to be trying to make. Unless I missed your point, which could very well be.

    1. John Dickerson

      Good point about Nixon. My reference to his “lift of a driving dream” was meant really to convey that even Nixon talked about the obligation a leader had to lift the imagination of the electorate. But Nixon is too big a problem to just use in passing.

  2. Ellen Holt (no relation to Rose Marie)

    But does a leader (& I assume we’re talking about elected leaders, not leaders in the arts, sciences, etc.) have to excite either somersaults or shrinkage (watch those Seinfeld references, John!)? Can we have a leader who we just like and are content with? Granted, the great ones will excite our imagination, either from love or hate – though I hate to think of Trump as exciting my imagination – but the merely good or bad ones will leave as much a mark on our daily lives as the great ones. As for the leader as actor, remember: there are no small roles, only small actors (I don’t know if that has much relevance here, but it’s a great line). Keep up the good work, JD, and keep us thinking!

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