Ambassador Joseph Wilson has a lesson to teach us, and I hope many Americans are listening. Wilson, you will probably recall, is the man at the center of the current investigation into possible criminal misdeeds on the part of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, among others (Wilson is the writer who became the target of the Cheney/Rove vendetta that ended with the leaking of his wife's identity as a CIA agent).
Let's hear what Ambassador Wilson has to teach us, because it fits hand in glove with a theme that is visited frequently in this space: humility (for the article that these quotes came from, look here).
Wilson said Wednesday he took little comfort that the men he believes have engaged in a campaign of character assassination against him for the past two years -- Karl Rove, President Bush's deputy chief of staff, and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's chief of staff -- may soon be facing charges and possible jail time.
"The fact that this may become a crisis of governance should please no one," Wilson said.
Wilson said that by publicly questioning the president's reasoning for the war in Iraq, he was simply acting in the country's best traditions.
"It is called holding your government to account for what it says and does in the name of the American people. We need to put this government on notice that it truly is a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
"When a government takes the country to war on lies and misinformation," he said to rousing applause, "that government ceases to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. "And that government becomes a government that preys on the people."
Wilson said he was withholding judgment regarding the claims about Cheney. "I don't know what to think of that, except to say it saddens me deeply. I get no satisfaction from that."
Notice carefully, ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Wilson did not appear before his audience with a "Mission (almost) Accomplished" banner unfurled behind him. He did not crow over his seemingly imminent victory over those who attempted to villify his family. Instead, he offered us a beautiful lesson in humility.
Exultant victory is the mark of the tyrant and the voice of the fool. When you have won a victory in either Justice or in a simple game, the best response is gratitude. I'm sure that, assuming the appropriate people are indicted and made to answer for their crimes, Mr. Wilson will feel a sense of gratitude at the justice he and his wife will have received. But he refuses to gloat over another man's misfortune, no matter what that man might have done (or attempted to do) to him.
This alone tells me a lot about the character of Ambassador Joseph Wilson. It reminds me of a well-known scene from Homer's Odyssey—perhaps you know it. Near the end of the poem, Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, have defeated the suitors who had taken over their home during Odysseus' absence, and had competed with one another to take his wife (Penelope). At the moment that father and son have completed their victorious battle against these thieves, young Telemachus cries out in exultation, gleefully celebrating the triumph. But his father rebukes him sternly: these men have paid the price for their misdeeds, and if we gloat over their fate then we are just as corrupt as were they.
Odysseus and Ambassador Wilson understood something that most of us in this culture entirely miss: when we crow over our victories, we only add power to a vortex of resentment and opposition. The moment when justice is won should be a grateful but solemn one. This is a lesson that every one of us can take into nearly every aspect of our lives: whether it is seeing justice done, winning a war or a debate, or a vindication of any sort, our focus must be upon the rebuilding, the healing yet to be done, and the lessons to be learned from any conflict.
We can always be grateful for success; but success that comes at the expense of another is hollow. We are often taught to be humble before adversity, but never, it seems, after a victory. Joseph Wilson knows better, and for that he deserves both our respect and our thanks. For the sake of this nation, I am hoping that we will need to remind ourselves of his lesson in the days to come.