Like all Americans, I’ve seen my destiny shaped by the U.S. presidents under whose rule I have lived and served. But now that I think about it, although my life was shaped in certain ways by their decisions, none of the presidents were really leaders to me. Their leadership was never very inspirational; it never touched my inner self. The only persons I can think of who were my actual leaders were Steve Marino, my father, and later Srila Prabhupada, my spiritual master.
It was through my father that I received my first impressions of the presidents: Teddy Roosevelt, he said, was a “bully-good” leader. He didn’t care for Wilson. And as for “silent Cal” and Hoover, I heard only jokes. I was born when Franklin Roosevelt was president. When I was two years olds the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor—the day after my birthday party—and my father had to go overseas for two years. But the war wasn’t FDR’s fault: it was the other “presidents”—Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini.
In those years I was mostly with my mother. I remember President Roosevelt wearing a big black cape and sitting with Churchill and Stalin, figuring out how to win the war. I was only a child, and things were happening around me; and although my father was away and Franklin Roosevelt was in charge, it didn’t seem to make much difference. There was my mother, food, and shelter, and life went on, waiting for Father to return. When he returned, he was again the leader of my life, as always. One night my father stayed up late listening to the radio, and I went to sleep hearing that Thomas Dewey had been elected president; but in the morning I learned that Harry Truman had won. I’m not sure about Truman, whether my father liked him or not, but it really didn’t make any difference to me. I know he liked Eisenhower, and since my political opinions were whatever my father’s were (as opposed to the foolish opinions sometimes held by other boys’ fathers) I also officially revered Eisenhower.
But as I grew up in high school, it dawned on me that I was entitled to my own opinion, and after my first semester in college I was already in disagreement with my father. I concluded that he was a conservative, while I became sympathetic to the left. Yet conservative as he was, I still thought he would favor Kennedy over Nixon in the 1960 election. I remember talking with him while he raked leaves on the front lawn. He looked up and said, “I think Nixon will make a better president,” and I was shocked and disappointed. But what did it really matter’? My disappointment wasn’t over which president he thought was best, but over the widening rift between us.
What did matter was that I had to go into active military service after college—since my father had enrolled me in the Reserves when I was seventeen. So it was under the order of my political choice, JFK, that I had to sail on a ship in the Caribbean during the Cuban scare. But even while my life was being shaped against my will by President Kennedy, I felt free of his leadership and ideology. I had read in Civil Disobedience how Thoreau had felt free although he had been imprisoned by the government, and I was also thinking like that. The president was not my leader, even though he exercised certain powers over my physical body.
By this time I had become thoroughly disenchanted with my father’s leadership, and as soon as my tour of duty was over, I left military service. With Lyndon Johnson as my president now, I went to live on the Lower East Side of New York, where I met my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada.
Here was a real leader. He hadn’t come from the White House; he had come from Krsna. I began coming by and hearing his lectures, and it didn’t matter who was president or whether they taxed me or ran me out of gasoline or inflated me or depressed me or blew me up with a bomb. I had a real leader, and I was going back to Godhead. He was the first one to give me real philosophy and a perfect example in his own life. He taught from a book of transcendental knowledge, the Bhagavad-gita, about the real, eternal self and the purpose of life in love of Godhead. I had never received that from anyone, neither father, priests, nor presidents. It was the mercy of Srila Prabhupada that he came to New York City when I was living there looking for answers and not finding them. I became his student and wanted to take up his mission of spreading Krsna consciousness to my countrymen.
I remember chanting Hare Krsna with a large group of devotees outside Madison Square Garden. It was the scene of the 1976 Democratic National Convention. A political folk singer was singing, “Vote nobody for president,” over an outdoor public-address system, while inside the Garden Jimmy Carter was receiving his party’s nomination. A reporter approached me and asked what was the Krsna conscious viewpoint of the presidential election. I told him that a true leader must be Krsna conscious—God conscious. I explained that it was not sufficient that the president belong nominally to a particular religious organization, but that he should be prepared to enact practical policy based on realization of the Supreme Being as the controller and proprietor of everything in the universe. The reporter was interviewing me merely as a sidelight to his coverage of the Democratic Convention, and I thought it unfortunate that the Vedic knowledge was being taken less seriously than the speculations of the politicans. But at least I was speaking the truth, by the grace of Srila Prabhupada.
So here it is, another election year and still no hope for a really God conscious leader. And if the people persist in being led around by their hedonism and sectarian attachments and thus pick unqualified leaders, they will have only themselves to blame for the ensuing cataclysm. But if, being dissatisfied with all other alternatives, people realize that the planet belongs to God, then they may elect a real leader who knows how to rule according to the dictates of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Of course, you don’t have to wait for the majority to elect such a leader. If you are tired of being cheated, you can seek out a bona fide spiritual master by taking direction from authentic sources like the Vedic scriptures. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam it is stated, “One who cannot deliver his dependents from repeated birth and death should never become a spiritual master, or a leader of the people, or even a father or a husband.” A misled nation may not be able to elect a qualified leader, but an individual can still save himself by sincerely and determinedly seeking to find the truth. There is higher knowledge than that delivered by our political systems. There are real leaders.—SDG