Yearning for a Selfless Leader

'I HURT, but not terribly.'' Those were Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's stoic last words as he was rushed to the Tel Aviv hospital. They are the words of a man who has been eulogized in the past few weeks as a modern hero. A soldier as well as a statesman. A shrewd and calculating politician. A man whose career provides a strong example for American leadership.

Yitzhak Rabin transformed himself from a soldier to a statesman, from a hawk to a dove, because he saw in the hawkish course a future for his country in which it perhaps would be safe, but not worth saving. After all, Rabin reasoned, if Israel spent much of its energy keeping another nation of people down, it would become a country of oppressors, consumed with the hatred of its enemies.

People are the sum of their actions, and Rabin, like many other Jews concerned about the future of the State of Israel, understood that. How could a nation whose Biblical purpose lies in providing healing and light unto the world - a mandate called tikkun in Hebrew - survive living in darkness and fear? He believed in the better future he envisioned for his nation and was prepared to pay for it with his personal popularity, with his political future, and ultimately with his life.

I assume other Americans, too, have been not only struck with grief at the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin but also overwhelmed with a sense of loss that goes even further. The loss I feel is for something and someone I have never known and despair of ever knowing - that is an American leader who cares for his or her nation as selflessly as Rabin tended to his.

Our nation yearns to be cared for so lovingly. To have a leader who promotes the interests of the nation - of its future as well as its present - without primary regard to personal ambitions.

Instead of politicians who seem consumed with concerns about election and reelection, the people of the United States long for a leader for whom loss and winning would be measured by the number of homeless people able to come off the streets; by the economic future ensured for our children and their children; by success in appealing to the best in our citizenry.

Reporters have written endlessly about the anger of the US electorate. About their disenchantment with politics. About the effects of urban alienation and continuing racial animosity in American communities. But I believe that the emotions being felt most by Americans, the emotions that are reflected in our voting habits and our daily concerns, are frustration and hurt.

Many Americans feel they have been abandoned by those who were charged with caring for them. Americans look to their president and other leaders to stand for what is best in the nation and the nation's character. Not to be a petty legislator or a personal promoter, but a leader. We long for a leader with whom we could disagree and yet still think to ourselves that he or she is acting for the common good.

It is just this sort of selfless leadership that Ross Perot embodied for many people four years ago with his fatherly chidings and his comforting assurances. It is what made our hearts leap at the thought of a Colin Powell presidency. It is what makes us despair over what President Clinton has become.

Yitzhak Rabin hurt - and hurt terribly - for the nation he loved. He lived for it. He died for it. Not for the chance to rule it. Not for the chance to become famous or to ensure his place in history books. But to save it. May we be so fortunate as to have a leader inspired enough to want to do the same for America.

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