Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 January 2008

Leading is Taking People Where They Wouldn’t Otherwise Go


Something historic happened last night. But it was not what most people think. The landslide caucus victory by the first serious African-American contender for the presidency was just icing on the cake. After 143 years, the Civil War may soon be over.

But the cake itself was more important. Despite all the noise and “spin,” the good people of Iowa recognized our generation’s Lincoln for who he is. Seldom have we needed a great leader more.

Our workaholic, self-obsessed, celebrity-pandering society makes so much noise. The twenty-four hour news cycle not only overemphasizes the trivial; it deifies it. You wonder if our media could recognize Christ resurrected if he appeared in person on our city streets. More likely, Chris Matthews would treat him the same way he treated Dennis Kucinich’s innocent revelation that he once thought he saw a UFO.

Yet recognize Obama Iowans did. They recognized him despite the banality and lack of professionalism in our news media. They recognized him despite our gated communities, our isolated and frenetic personal lives, and our propensity to take ideology for fact and reality for fiction. They recognized him despite the absurd claim—repeated endlessly and credulously by our media—that Hillary Clinton has massive executive experience and would be ready to roll on day one.

Hillary Clinton will never be ready. Although she will be 61 in 2009, in her heart and mind she will always be that student at Wellesley, watching the polls and focus groups, earnestly seeking to lead and do good, but not having a clue.

Great men and women know how to lead instinctively. Obama did in predicting the consequences of invading Iraq months before the event. Great leaders take risks, as Obama did in making that speech when the whole country was beating the drums of war and his political career was only beginning.

The Hillary Clinton we see on TV is a female robot assembled from polls and focus groups by consultants and spinmeisters. That figure is barely a human being, let alone a leader. When the robot encounters an issue for which it was not programmed—such as drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants—it does what every inadequately programmed robot does. It breaks down. Whether there is a human being inside only her family and close friends know.

Whatever you may say about the Byzantine procedure of Democratic caucuses in Iowa, the beautiful victory of humanity and common sense over robotics and “spin” might only have happened there. In Iowa politics is not a matter of sitting in living rooms listening to talking heads on TV, or cursing the straw men that talking heads demonize. There politics means talking to your neighbors from both parties, meeting the candidates, and listening carefully to everyone. There politics still has a hint of the mutual respect among equal citizens that has marked democracy since Athens.

It was Lincoln, I think, who once said that not all the great powers of Europe could fight their way up the Ohio River. He was not bragging about our growing industrial and military might. Nor was he foreseeing our future role of world leadership. He was simply observing what a people freely and voluntarily united in a common and noble purpose can achieve, and how hard it is to stop them.

We can beat global warming if we stop arguing about how imminent it is and start rolling up our sleeves to fix it. We can beat the terrorists the same way. Must 300 million of the most highly educated souls in the most technologically advanced society on Earth cower in fear of a few thousand uneducated fanatics hiding in caves? Not if we stand together and use our heads.

The same point applies at home. We hear we must “fight” the drug and insurance masters just to rationalize our health care system. Only a domestic political Armageddon, we are told, can defeat them.

But who are these forces of darkness? They are the chief executives, lawyers, public relations people, and major shareholders of a few dozen companies. They are folks just like us, trying to make a living by filling a social need. Together they number at most in the thousands. Can they stand against the rest of us 300 million? Not if someone clever and wise shows us where our real national interest lies and leads us to achieve it. We don’t need a big fight; we need good leadership with finesse.

Sometimes we forget. Nearly 800 years ago, Anglo-American democracy began by avoiding a big fight. The Barons came out on the field of Runnymede in full battle regalia, ready to rumble. King John saw he was outnumbered and made a deal.

Democracy has gone that way ever since. Get the votes and count them and you don’t have to fight or die. Isn’t that the point?

Somehow we’ve forgotten Lincoln’s somber message about a house divided. Somehow we’ve forgotten democracy’s basic skills: valuing one’s fellow citizens, respecting and accommodating their views, compromising when necessary, and building a nation community by community. So it’s not surprising that folks in our Midwest, where neighbors used to pitch in to help build their neighbors’ barns, were the first to get the message.

Yet even the best message requires a messenger. When we forget the lessons of history, we need someone to remind us. That someone is Obama, and the good people of Iowa recognized him as such.

Now it’s up to the rest of us to understand, to take back our country from the spinmeisters and professional cynics, to restore our honor, and to make the light shine again. Thank you, Iowa, for showing us the way.


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