I have been thinking very hard about The Leadership Question. You know the one I mean: the nation is awakening from the long dark spell President Bush was able to cast on so many of us (“Yeah, but he’s such a nice guy…”). The conditions are coming together for a national learning experience. But whom can we look to for truth?
Who will stand up and speak truth to power in a compelling way? In a way that cuts through the crap, that makes all the inside baseball that passes for political discourse drop away, and gives us–at long last–one of those holy moments that hints at democracy at its best?
I am the same age as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Yesterday, talking with two friends who are veterans of every movement from sixties civil rights and antiwar organizing to present-day environmental activism, three reasons emerged to explain why the leadership pool of our generation is so sparse.
First, it must be said that the way money overdetermines American politics has taken its toll: barring a family fortune or a rip-roaring populist bandwagon, no one who isn’t prepared to sell himself or herself to contributors all day long can make a serious bid for national office under current conditions.
Second, obsessive media focus on personal conduct has discouraged prospective candidates who, like me, inhaled during the sixties or took forthright political positions. (The right gets a dispensation from this on account of the pervasive double-standard, of course: George the Younger inhaled everything in sight, then took himself off the hook through a highly public conversion experience that immunized him against having to take responsibility for his youthful escapades.) Things that have absolutely nothing to do with real qualifications are so often (and so viciously) used to discredit potential candidates that some of the best have been scared off.
Third is something for which I accept a fair share of the responsibility (not so much personally as on behalf of my sixties cohort). Imprinted by the excesses of the fifties, we were so determined not to abuse power, not to follow a suspect charismatic model of leadership, that the best people of my generation ceded the field. To whom? To those so consumed by ambition they wouldn’t let a little matter of principle stand in their way (\i.e.\, Bill Clinton); and those so deeply shaped by personal privilege that political leadership was their fallback position when their more lucrative career ambitions didn’t work out (\i.e.\, George W. Bush).
The really talented, clear-thinking people in their fifties are working for nonprofit organizations or applying their social entrepreneurship to business, they are dedicated to their professions or to lives of social service. I don’t mean to say that any of this is less meaningful or socially valuable than the political arena. I only mean to ask this: though the fire might smoulder for a few years before he burns out, Bush is crashing and burning; whom shall we turn to for the words we need and want to hear right now? The words that can help move us forward?
All honor to Paul Krugman, whose Monday column in the \New York Times\ was a model of clear, connected thinking, a miniature masterpiece of truth-telling. Krugman began by saying the administration’s “essential fraudulence” has now been exposed, then showed how Bush’s power has been dependent on myths that have now been debunked and called for two cathartic truth-telling experiences:
“First, politicians will have to admit that they were misled. Second, the news media will have to face up to their role in allowing incompetents to pose as leaders and political apparatchiks to pose as patriots.”
(I apologize if the link to Krugman’s column doesn’t work; the \Times\ in its wisdom has just started to make much of its online content subscriber-only.)
On the \Times’\ op-ed page, Krugman wrote that Bush’s “cult of personality is dead–and the inscription on the tombstone reads, ‘Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!'” On the previous page, in a main editorial, the paper gave this headline to its condemnation of another remarkably unqualified Bush nominee for a humanitarian post, Ellen Sauerbrey, the Maryland state chair of Bush’s 2000 election campaign: “Michael Brown, Redux.”
I read the activist bulletins and know there are plenty of people out there who stand up to denounce injustice, rallying the opposition. I am deeply grateful for the people from MoveOn.org and TrueMajority.org and all the other networks of the dedicated and diligent. I know leadership can and will come from other generations. But right now, I want something my sixties self would never have admitted: leaders who can command passion and credibility. I am longing to be stirred by resonant words of truth from figures who can capture national attention and help us learn how to emerge from what Krugman called our “long political nightmare.”
To all who have the capacity to speak for us: forget the spin doctors and focus groups and inside baseball. The opportunity for awakening is here. It’s time to take the stage and speak truth to power, straight up.