NEW YORK -- Let us now praise famous cliches.
"Events are in the saddle and ride mankind" is usually attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"History is just one damn thing after another" is a perversion of something said by the British historian Arnold Toynbee, criticizing colleagues who thought in terms of events.
But whatever their origins, cliches hang in there because they do tell us something useful about the human condition. Which brings us to the mystery at the core of leadership and the myths of power: No one, no matter how grand the title, knows what damn thing is going to happen next.
The president of the United States, supposedly the most powerful man in the world, actually is just the person we elect to stand at the center of us and react to events unforeseen. The power of campaign promises and admirable plans and programs often count little against the vagaries of events. Just to make up a list:
-- An oil spill, say in the Gulf of Mexico, threatens to destroy life along the coastline -- and any new proposals for prospecting in the deep;
-- A state, say Arizona, decides it is going to use police state tactics to deal with the criminal and social problems of illegal immigration -- as Congress dithers on in debating the problem;
-- A great banking house, say Goldman Sachs, is revealed to be misleading its clients -- as the president and Congress are debating new banking regulation;
-- An activist Supreme Court drops a bomb, say a ruling that corporations and unions are practically individuals and can spend whatever they want to get the government that best serves their purposes;
-- An insurance company, say Anthem Blue Cross in California, notifies its customers that its rates will be going up as much as 39 percent -- as Congress is debating health care reform and more oversight of insurance companies.
So it goes. Events Barack Obama never imagined -- some helpful, some not -- will define his presidency. Leadership, more often than not, is just reaction. Judgment. We pay Barack Obama $400,000 a year to react to events and judge him by that reaction. I suppose someone pays Lloyd Blankfein $60 million or so every year to do the same thing.
In writing about several presidents over the years, I have been constantly surprised by the density of events that shower the White House. In 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated about what each would do if the communist government of China invaded a couple of rocky islands called Quemoy and Matsu, places never to be heard about again.
Kennedy won and it turned out that places he had to worry about were Berlin, Saigon, Havana and Greenville, S.C., Jackson and Oxford, Miss., and Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala. The 35th president had thought about those foreign capitals, but questions of race and civil rights were never a significant part of the campaign, and in fact were almost totally ignored in Kennedy's inaugural address.
Then it was one damn thing after another. In less than 48 hours in June of 1963:
Kennedy gave his great American University speech about re-evaluating the assumptions of the Cold War, an initiative triggered in part by events in Moscow, where Soviet leaders rebuffed a delegation of Chinese communist leaders demanding a harder communist line against the Americans; the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, tried to block the admission of the first two Negro students accepted at the state university; a Buddhist monk burned himself to death in Saigon to protest the policies of the American-backed government in South Vietnam; and, after Kennedy went on television to side with the students in Alabama, the field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Mississippi, Medgar Evers, was shot to death by a white man in front of his wife and children.
Events were in the saddle. And they still are. The only difference now is that with modern communication miracles, mankind is trying to control a faster horse called history.