Archives for category: pjm
This article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

If you are reading this, you are not the target of Senator Obama’s 30-minute media buy. Which surely means, since I am writing, that neither am I the target. Good thing, too — I was disappointed.

Oh, sure, my eyes teared up at the right moments, and I enjoyed the homespun blues guitar. As commercials go, it was fine. And as infomercials go, it was a knockout. What I am disappointed by, on behalf of the civic life of America, is the squandered opportunity.

Set aside, for the moment, whom you prefer to vote for (or have already voted for) in the upcoming “historic presidential election.” The fact remains that one candidate is so dominating the current electoral scene that he is able to insert a 30-minute unfiltered message into almost all of prime time. He is a candidate who looks and talks differently than most other political figures cluttering the landscape. His charisma is undeniable, recalling orators of yore. He’s smart.

At his best, this candidate preaches (and it is preaching) a kind of politics that rests on a partnership between the leaders and the led, where citizens aren’t customers of government but are citizens, who hold responsibilities as well as rights. This at times seems a revolutionary idea, coming as it does at a time when politics itself seems exhausted, the rhetoric ground down by the accretion of promise after promise.

Americans know that they themselves can do better, that they can be better citizens. I hear it as I talk to people throughout the nation. Most would grade themselves a “B” in terms of citizenship, if that. They’re waiting for an invitation to step up, and many observers see Obama’s candidacy as just such an opportunity.

But he played it safe, sticking to the well-worn talking points and really, it seems, just hoping to make his points through repetition. I guess it is hard to fault someone in Sen. Obama’s position for steering a course that minimizes mistakes. After all, he’s trying to close the deal, and that’s a job not yet done.

But imagine if Sen. Obama’s campaign had instead seen these thirty minutes as an opportunity — not for his own campaign, but for the American people. He might have taken a different tack.

He might have gathered ten Americans from different walks of life — including, especially, people with whom he disagrees — and had a conversation with them. During this conversation he might not have spent the time trying to sell his candidacy, but instead to give voice to ordinary people, to probe what they want the public square to look and feel like. He could have even asked them: What will you do, to make this a better nation? This could have been a moment in which to make manifest the very deal Obama seems to want between government and citizens, an equal partnership.

Or, maybe, he might have spent the time weighing the relative merits of his and his opponent’s world views. He might have asked a co-host to present opposing views not in a demonic way, but with their best feet forward. After all, Sen. McCain is a serious person and his proposals are worth taking seriously. Why not examine them at their best, and explain why notwithstanding their good points, Obama would go in another direction? And why not point out the downsides of Obama’s own proposals – for everyone knows that there are upsides and downsides. This would just be leveling with the American people and telling them what they already know in their gut: there is no silver bullet and no one answer is undeniably the right one. This could have been a moment when the American electorate were finally being treated as the grown-ups they are.

Instead, Sen. Obama’s campaign chose to sell us a grill and a set of knives. It probably did his campaign good and it’s unlikely that it hurt.

But it could have been so much more.

This article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

Competition between colleges is as tough as it ever was and will definitely get tougher. But this seems ridiculous. My friends at Ethics Newsline brought to my attention that turns out that Baylor University has been paying students who are already admitted and attending the school — to retake the SAT. Just sitting for the exam can win $300 textbook credit and raising your score by 50 points wins you $1,000 in scholarship money. Considering that SAT scores can easily vary by 50 points from sitting to sitting, this is a good bet for any incoming student.

Why would Baylor want its already-admitted kids to retake the SAT? Easy: The SAT is a major part of the US News & World Report’s college ranking system. Baylor’s got a strategic plan called Baylor 2012 that evidently includes a cornerstone goal that it will do better on the US News rankings. They’re on their way, according to The Lariat, the student newspaper. Baylor’s average score SAT went from 1,200 to 1,210.

Baylor’s vice president for marketing, John Barry, first told The New York Times that there’s no problem because any other college could have done it too: “Every university wants to have great SAT scores. Every university wants to be perceived as having a high-quality class. We all wanted that. Were we happy our SAT scores went up? Yes. Did our students earn their scores? Yes they did.”

Some critics of standardized testing in general are pouncing on this because they say it reveals how evil they are. I don’t see it that way. The SAT is just a tool. So are the US News rankings. Baylor was misusing one tool to game the other – that doesn’t make the tools wrong, it makes Baylor wrong. Indeed, according to the influential Inside Higher Ed, Robert Morse (the US News “ranking czar”) made clear that the magazine “disapproves of any educational policy designed solely to manipulate the ranking.”

This episode shows how careful leaders have to be when they set goals — because staff throughout the organization might think that reaching the goal is the most important thing, not how you get there. In some areas, that can work. Schools? Not so much.

This is also a great example of gaming a system without breaking the rules. In other words, it’s a great example of the difference between what’s legal and what’s right.

While Baylor’s Barry at first said the university was “very happy with the way [the program] turned out,” they must not have been too happy about being caught. They’ve promised to cut the program, saying it was a “goof.”

The story first broke in Baylor’s student paper, The Lariat. It didn’t die with that one piece, either. In a recent editorial, The Lariat points out that:

Ultimately, the decision about SAT scores is really just a symptom of a larger problem. As Baylor progresses towards its 2012 goal, it’s seems more and more intent on fulfilling as many of the imperatives [in the strategic plan] as possible. There is a serious problem with this mentality, though. We seem so anxious to reach these goals that we aren’t considering whether we’re actually improving as a university. In this case, we’re trying to improve the appearance of our student’s scores without actually attracting higher-scoring students.

Many business schools now make ethics courses a central requirement to get that MBA, in an effort to improve things. According to Fox News religion correspondent, Lauren Green:

In the wake of the Enron collapse there’s been a bumper crop of ethics courses added to the business curriculum. The nation’s number one business school, Harvard began its much heralded and mandatory Leadership and Corporate Accountability course five years ago. . . . And Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School was established last year . . . for the express purpose of turning out business school graduates who’ll work to the corporate culture of greed to a culture favoring more socially responsible leadership.

But this assumes the problem is that people somehow need more knowledge in order to make ethical decisions. No: they need a moral compass coupled with some backbone. The Lariat’s insightful analysis shows it doesn’t take smarts and a degree to make the right decisions — it takes guts.

Someone, somewhere along the line, should have been able to stand up and say, “Um, boss? This SAT plan is wrong.” Maybe a memo to that effect will come to light, which would restore my faith in humanity.

Meanwhile, seemingly the last line of defense for Baylor’s reputation, the student editors of the paper hold out hope that should also be coming from the halls of the administrative offices: “With any luck, the damage done is not irreversible, and we can reaffirm our university as fair and ethical.”

In case you are interested, I’ve got two TV-on-the-Internet segments coming up that you can check out. Not a big deal, just wanted you to know.

First of all, I am scheduled to be a guest on Pajamas TV (the new Internet video venture of Pajamas Media, where I publish commentary occasionally and where my role appears to be to infuriate people). They’ve asked me to talk about stories the mainstream media has been giving short shrift to. (Please email me if you have ideas you think I should consider.) The PJTV segment is slated for Wednesday, October 8 at 6pm Eastern. To watch, just go to this link.

Secondly, some of my readers know that I have long been involved (at least, until recently) with the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. I helped them design a unique training program for first-time political candidates (the program is centered on ethics but also has a lot of hard-hitting and useful advice). I also have led sessions for their flagship leadership program, which is one of the better ones in the nation. The 2007 Sorensen class is the subject of a recent PBS documentary called “Across The Aisle,” and (while I have not seen it yet) I am told one can see yours truly in the show.

The documentary is airing in various markets around the country. But people everywhere have a chance to see it in its entirety coming up, October 5 through October 11, at 9pm each night. On those days it will be running on Norfolk’s Channel 48 — watch live here (click the button to launch).

Here’s a bit from an article on the documentary from the Charlottesville Daily Progress:

The Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia will be the focus of a new public television documentary set to air at the end of May.

The documentary, “Across the Aisle: Returning Trust, Civility and Respect to Politics,” follows civic leaders enrolled in the institute’s political leader training program.

Over the years, numerous Sorensen graduates have been elected to public office. Sixteen alumni currently serve in the Virginia General Assembly.

In the documentary, the institute is held up as a national model for returning civility to America’s increasingly bitter political landscape.

The film focuses on seven of the 35 students in the Sorensen Institute’s class of 2007. The cameras tag along as the students debate and discuss politics with ideological opponents, tour state government facilities and confront their political biases.

Over the course of the 90-minute film, one of the Democratic subjects opts to run for a seat on her local school board in a heavily Republican district.

The documentary also focuses on how several of the subjects with entrenched political beliefs begin to see issues from a different perspective after they spend time with people from the other end of the political spectrum.

WHTJ, Charlottesville’s local PBS member station, produced the documentary.

If you tune in, I hope you enjoy!

This article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

There is a parable I learned long ago from the continuous improvement management philosophy. It’s called “rocks and water.”

Imagine you want to row your boat along a full, gently flowing river. No sweat. Imagine the water level drops significantly, exposing the jagged rocks along the riverbed. Now try rowing. Can’t do it; too many rocks.

In the parable, the water is any enabling resource of which having lots can obscure problems. In many businesses, the water is cash. Too much cash makes it easy to ignore the rocks underwater. Only when the water is drained can we see – and remove – the rocks. Many of the best organizations keep their water level low on purpose so that when rocks begin to appear they can be seen and dealt with.

Now with a panicking New York-DC axis, I can’t help but think about rocks and water. We’ve let the water level rise for decades, hoping it would keep everyone floating along. The so-called “predatory lending” that some point to is just a sliver of the problem. The real problem, as I understand it is that, driven by well-intentioned policies, some smart pencil-pushers figured out how to create a mechanism for avoiding risk altogether. Make the loans, sell the risk to someone else. This opened the floodgates as it became easy to invest with little apparent downside. With the system set up this way, no one feels the pain – until everyone feels the pain.

The river’s drying up now.

The main story being told is that those idiot “back bench” House members scuttled the imperfect-yet-necessary rescue boat for the American economy. In the howls from the editorial columns you can hear the derision. Almost the entire elite of America was unified behind the need to take the rescue deal on offer. How dare these rebels place mere “politics” ahead of the needs of the “market?” Don’t they understand the stakes? To read the coverage, you’d think some small minority had sunk the rescue dinghy because they did not like the color it was painted. Idiots. Cowards.

But take a step away from the panic for just a moment. It was not a small slice of the house of Representatives who voted against the bailout – it was most members of the People’s House. Some were reacting to what appeared to them to be too large a giveaway to the same Wall Street fat cats who had built the house of cards in the first place. Others saw the bailout as a grave rejection of the principles of responsibility, and freedom to fail, that our economy, at its best, is built upon.

But others, most perhaps, saw another problem. They just could not sell a “yes” vote to their constituents. One congressional staffer reported calls flooding in, verifiably from the district, at “a thousand to one” against. Ordinary people are up in arms.

The wise cluck their tongues and say the politicians should have some backbone. But why? It’s one thing to make a judgment call on the margins, but it’s yet another to jettison the clear will of the people one represents. No rational person can believe the “no” voters did not understand the stakes. They knew the stakes. They’d been briefed. They voted no anyway.

Sometimes the things that seem the worst possible turn out for the best. Maybe that will happen now.

If there is one piece of advice my older self wishes it could give my younger self, it is: Do not make decisions under duress and in haste. Looking back, I think of the many times I have been saved from bonehead moves by something that, at the time, thwarted my desire and seemed a setback. And I think of the times I was not saved, of the times that I forged ahead in panic – only to regret the move later.

Public life feels very much the same way these days.

I know from listening to ordinary Americans all through the country that there is a pervasive sense that, at some point, we’re going to have to pay the piper. The people I hear almost lament that nothing seems able to shake us from our collective consumption and obsession with more. When that time comes, companies will fail. Our lifestyle will drastically simplify. We will feel pain, all of us.

Maybe that time is now. Maybe, with the water receding, we can set to work removing the rocks.

This article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

Senator John McCain’s campaign has “abruptly canceled” a fundraiser that had been set to take place at the home of a Texas oilman. The host, Clayton Williams, had run for governor against Ann Richards back in 1990 and, during the campaign, unfortunately at one point compared the weather to a rape — “as long as it’s inevitable, you might as well lie back and enjoy it.” He was trying to be funny. It wasn’t. These words were picked up by the media and by Richards’ campaign and Williams lost.

In canceling their fundraiser, McCain’s campaign spokesman said, “These were obviously incredibly offensive remarks that the campaign was unaware of at the time this event was scheduled.”

Now the questions begin: Should he give back the money? How will this affect the campaign? What will Obama do? Shouldn’t he have known?

That last question is, perhaps, worth thinking about.

There’s a long and proud American tradition of political figures getting torpedoed by words and deeds from the past. Often it is some sort of nominee whose inane or insane remarks from their youth get unearthed. Or weird academic writings that had been read by maybe seven Ph.D.s come to light. Or the figure has a vulgar sense of humor (like our man Williams). Or a family member has a checkered past.

Opponents pounce on such things, and that’s understandable. But in the past, the test in people’s living rooms has been: how does the principal deal with the revelations? For some high-profile nominees, such as for positions that require Senate confirmation, we are dumbfounded that the offense had not come up in the background checks, but for less weighty things there’s this sense of sympathy. You can’t know everything about everybody.

But now that’s changed. Really, it’s hard not to know more about most people than they would like to have known.

Take that fellow who ran for Texas governor and tripped up the Senator from Arizona. One Google search yields his Wikipedia entry as the #2 hit. Wikipedia (and this was current as of March 27), highlights the offending remark. OK, some purists say Wikpedia is prone to manipulation, so follow one more link to the source article. There it is, the remark and the ensuing controversy. That “research” took sixty seconds, including reading time.

Yet, the McCain campaign treats the remark as if it was some obscure thing they could not have possibly known. The only way the campaign could have been “unaware of” the remark “at the time the event was scheduled” would be if no one actually looked into who this guy was. Probably a better response from the Straight Talk Express would have been: “We were moving too fast and just didn’t do our homework.”

This isn’t just McCain’s problem. Senator Barack Obama’s campaign has been plagued by similar Google-blindness and tin-ear moves. James Johnson, the consummate insider, reviewing the Running Mates of Change? Please. Tony Rezko, radioactive fundraiser and neighbor selling a strip of vacant land to the senator from Illinois? He was “glowing” at the time of the sale, under investigation by Federal prosecutors. And for intemperate, embarrassing remarks, see the entry under Rev. Wright.

Senator Obama’s response to criticism that he should have known about Johnson’s sweetheart mortgage deals was: “[E]verybody . . . who is tangentially related to our campaign, I think, is going to have a whole host of relationships. I would have to hire the vetter to vet the vetters.” This is a classic line. If there is justice, “vetter to vet the vetters” will enter pop culture and get screened onto American Apparel basic T’s. At least it deserves something on the Colbert Report.

But he does have a point. Johnson’s apparently too-cozy Countrywide mortgages came to light (through an article in the Wall Street Journal) only after he was named Chief Vetter.

While there are many things that a campaign ought to know, there are just as many things about supporters that campaigns can’t know. And the means for many of these things to come to the fore are firmly entrenched in the landscape. Look no further than sites like Pajamas Media. The only certainty, then, is that things will come to light.

Candidates need to both up their game and prepare for the mistakes they will definitely make. It won’t pass muster to say you didn’t know something anyone can find out in less than a minute.

But, as former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointed out (and for which wisdom he was unfairly ridiculed), there are known unknowns. That is to say, candidates can bet on embarrassing revelations about their supporters, even if they do not yet know, and cannot yet know, what they are.

How will the campaigns respond? Circle the wagons? Or — perhaps too much to ask from the Candidate of Believable Change or from Camp Straight Talk — with straightforward candor?

This article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

I wonder what I would say to Eliot Spitzer if he were my neighbor.

Watching his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, in that first hastily-called press conference, I thought to myself, That’s a deep wound he’s left. Eliot Spitzer apparently took extraordinary actions to get what he wanted, jumping through hoop after hoop after hoop put in his way by his contact at Emperor’s Club VIP. The payments they requested ratcheted up and up with each telephone call, if the affidavits from the wiretaps are to be believed. It seems clear this is not the only time he’s been a customer at such an establishment. It’s hard to argue that it was a momentary weakness. The facts are quite damning. They get worse the more we learn.

Preamble aside, here’s what he said he planned to do in his initial announcement: “I must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family.”

That seemed a tall order to me then, and it still does. It is likely to take a bit more than “some” time.

Many say Spitzer’s troubles are quite pleasing because of their irony. Spitzer was known as a crusader, with a carefully cultivated squeaky clean image, and with few friends, so this episode goes beyond a simple john-caught-in-a-sting story. Indeed, even the admissions of marriage on-on-the-rocks dalliances years ago by his successor, and even racier ones emerging from the neighboring Garden State somehow don’t carry the same weight. Roger L. Simon called it correctly when he pointed out: “The outcry against Spitzer was not because he was some man seeing a prostitute, but because he was a guy who puts prostitutes in jail seeing a prostitute.”

But, I’m putting aside for a moment the laws, his political career, and his storied lack of allies. I neither despise his policies nor particularly applaud his successes.

Instead, at a distance, it is possible to think of him as a man who is a husband and a father, whom I have to believe will want to try to make amends to his wife. At least, that’s what he says.

A measure of compassion — not for him, but for the spot he is in — emerged as I heard the line about his plans to “dedicate some time” to regain his family’s trust. As if it is a project to be tackled over the weekend, or a gardening holiday. It sounded like the desperate hope of any male who thinks he can just focus in and fix things. But anyone with close relations to any other human being, and especially people who have hurt, or been hurt, knows that such pain does not go away quickly. Breached trust is not regained after just “some time.” It takes much longer. And it takes a much different attitude.

Watching, I placed myself in his shoes, listening to that press conference. What must it be like to be caught so very publicly and red-handed, to have to ask your wife of twenty-one years to accompany you to the dais, to desperately want the clock to turn back? A living nightmare.

Hate the sin, love the sinner. What would I want to say to my pretend neighbor, perhaps while we met one another on the way down the street to pick up the dry cleaning? At a time, in other words, when he was not a governor but just another person? Like he is now?

I’d want to say: “Don’t think it’s all going to get better right away. But if you have true remorse, and truly want to change, it often can turn out OK. It can take years, decades, and the outcome is not always assured. If I were your wife, I would want to ask you how I can be assured you are really trying to change.”

I would want to talk about the difference between an apology — that really just amounts to regret at being caught — and truly making amends. When you make amends, you recognize your own wrongdoing and set out to put it right. “Sorry” gets you a do-over. Making amends begins to address the problem.

You get the sense, watching public figures do their public business, that people begin to believe their own press after a time. Celebrities “become” their personae, as do politicians. This is Spitzer’s domestic challenge now, to take himself down a peg and do more than “dedicate some time.”

He hasn’t been seen much lately so maybe that’s what he’s up to.

We’ve all hurt people and we’ve all wanted to make it right. And we have all experienced the feeling of remorse over not having truly made it right. How many of us mutter an apology and move on — when far more is required?

And so I would want, finally, to say this to my neighbor: “It’s time to devote your life to deserving the trust of your family. You can do it, but only if you want it deeply enough.”

The article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

There is a priceless moment in Oliver Stone’s unfairly maligned The Doors, when our heroes are prepping to go on the Ed Sullivan Show. They are met by a stage assistant, a real twerp, who informs them that, “The network guys have a problem with one of your lyrics. ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much higher.'” He goes on: ” You can’t say ‘higher’ on the network, so they asked if you could say instead: ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much better.'”

The band looks at him, bemused. He finishes with: “Could you dig that?”

That dork’s use of the word “dig” in this context perfectly illustrates what often happens when mainstream folks try to appropriate street talk: they get it wrong, either by not understanding proper usage, or just plain sounding silly. While we play such things for laughs, they ring true because we see the same thing every day.

I remember a song by a milquetoast rapper named Vanilla Ice, called “Ice Ice Baby.” You probably remember it too. It’s your standard 1990’s fare, filled with braggadocio about the protagonist’s many fine exploits. I can’t help laughing when I hear some of the lines in the tune. Vanilla says he is “Rollin’ in my 5.0” at one point. We all remember the angular 5.0 liter Mustang that was popular then. Vanilla spends three couplets on his “5.0,” with evident pride not just in its fanciness but also in his street cred for knowing such slang. Thing is, that’s not what the term “5-0” meant at the time — it meant “police,” as in “Hawaii 5-0.” (Vanilla, whose real name is Rob Van Winkle, is a far more mature person now and a new crowd has come to enjoy his music.)

All this came back to me as the David Shuster saga unfolded. In an intemperate moment, our chalk-stripe-suited host says that Chelsea Clinton is being “pimped out” by her mom’s campaign.

This has generated a firestorm and Shuster is now suspended for uttering such a derogatory remark. For my part, I would have wanted to suspend him for not understanding the language he was trying to use. He pulled a Vanilla Ice.

Dig: “Pimped out” means “made very fancy,” as a stereotypical pimp might decorate something. There are overtones of exploitation, too, as in when something is “tricked out” — that is, made alluring enough for a trick.

What Shuster probably meant to say was that he felt Chelsea was being “pimped,” as in “exploited.” It’s a small slip, like Vanilla Ice’s slip when it comes to his car, but it matters. On its face, Shuster’s remark meant the campaign was dressing Chelsea up. In context, it was incoherent. In trying to appropriate so-called street lingo, he botched the job and made the same mistakes any foreign speaker makes when idiomatically out of their depth, with similarly hilarious results.

When I was in high school, I hosted an exchange student from Belgium. He fancied himself quite the Casanova, but most of my friends thought him the opposite. We taught him that the term “doughbrain” was our slang expression for “ladies’ man.” I regret it, now, as it was just mean — but, man was it funny at the time.

If I were advising my exchange brother now, I would say to watch out and double check what idiomatic expressions mean, because you might just wind up sounding like a real Newman.

I guess David Shuster could use the same advice.

ADDENDUM: Looks like I made a mistake, and relied on my recollection and the lyric sheet when it came to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” — instead of re-listening to the song itself. He doesn’t say “five-oh” (which is what I remembered) but says “five point oh.” Commenters at Pajamas Media who have pointed that out are right. Kicking myself. You should, too!

They’re also right that it knocks a big leg out from under my point, but not entirely: Shuster sounded really silly saying “pimped out,” like a suit trying to talk street, and (this much I still maintain) misusing the term in that way.

This article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

The Cub Scout pack that I lead decided, for the first time, to hold a parents’ race at our recent Pinewood Derby. We did it as a fundraiser.

My car, while creative (I made it look like a rock), did not do very well in the race. I did not come in last, but I was not in the top half of finishers. I took it all right; about as well as other boys in the pack took their losses. One youngster beckoned me down to his level and said, with concern, “It’s hard to hide your tears, isn’t it?” He had lost a race a few heats before, and had almost cried. His simple kindness cleared my head.

My head did, indeed, need clearing, but not due to tears.

I have led this pack for about three years now. I do a pretty good job, if I say so myself. I know it’s not just me; we have a terrific group of parents. But I know they like me and think I am doing a good job, and generally feel secure in my exalted position. After all, it’s a task that few really want — perhaps I am odd; I recently signed on for another year.

In any event, my young friend’s words knocked me out of a tailspin of doubt. I had been thinking to myself, “Perhaps I should not have raced. My status is now diminished because of this loss.”

The power of this thought, its immediacy, and my inability to put it out of my head through my own efforts, all shook me. If you had asked me the night before how I would feel if my car did not do well, I would have told you that I am a collaborative enough leader to be able to withstand something as silly as a model car-racing loss. If you had asked me even earlier, hypothetically, how a leader ought to approach a parents’ race for charity, I would have told you that a true leader would jump at the chance to sign up and would cheerlead for the cause, not caring a whit about how the standings turned out. And, I would have believed to my core that I would act as that kind of leader when it came to it.

But there I was, fretting. You really don’t know how you’ll react until something happens. It’s so easy to make decisions in the hypothetical. It’s even easy to imagine how you would behave in a given situation, but the truth is we really only know how we like to think we would behave.

I was shaken to realize how selfishly my thoughts had turned, and how quickly. Where was my collaborative leadership style? Where did this Great Santini, for whom winning was everything, come from? I know I should not be too hard on myself, for such thoughts are natural. But I will always remember how — unlike my own view of myself they were.

As I watch the presidential debates and the candidate interviews, I can’t help but think how I would answer certain questions, how I would parry certain jabs. It baffles me why certain candidates don’t just say this, or that. But, my Cub Scout friend reminded me that it’s not me talking to Wolf Blitzer or Tim Russert, and there’s really no saying what I would do under those circumstances. For all our self-satisfaction of how enlightened we are, the urge to self-preservation is strong.

I may disagree with what they say or how they say it, but my hat is off to the people who choose to run for office, and daily place themselves in situations that would turn most of us to jelly. I hope that some of them have the chance to meet people like my Cub Scout friend.

This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.

Recently, there was a little-noticed gathering of graybeards in Oklahoma, designed to place the political world on notice that things have gotten too partisan. I say little-noticed because, while the collected firepower in the room was sufficient to garner some approving mentions in the press, especially from the handwringing contingent, the statement issued by this group appears to have come and gone without leaving much in the way of ripples. Good thing, too.

Long ago, I led an initiative of which the Oklahoma summit would no doubt approve. Armed with hundreds of thousands of dollars from a foundation, I spent multiple election cycles trying to get opposing candidates to agree to simple ground rules for their campaigns and then stick to them. From my vantage point now, with no vested interest, I can say that in all honesty we had almost no success. Of course, we trumpeted battles won and progress made, and built an impressive book of press clipping — and we did so in sufficient volume to get investment from other foundations too.

Still, when all was said and done, the chief bit of learning from this lengthy effort is that candidates’ campaigns are not interested in “fighting fair” or working in “bipartisan” ways. They are interested in winning, so their candidate can then go on to govern.

It may be true that I just botched the job and someone else would have led the project to a more bipartisan glory. But I was not alone in my efforts. Across the nation in the late 1990’s, well-meaning nonprofit organizations tried to change the way election campaigns seemed to be going. For every small victory (a public financing system here, or an instant-runoff voting system there), there were far greater setbacks.

I’ve come to believe that, by and large, people are not interested in “bipartisan” approaches to “solutions” to our nation’s “problems.” They are interested in having the feeling that they are being led and led well, by someone who cares about their concerns and will honestly do their best. This was the political genius of Bill Clinton and of the team behind George W. Bush. They made 50% plus one feel that way.

By contrast, this is something that the technocrats who have spent long years in the halls of power do not seem to get. Having made policy for so long, they seem to believe that ordinary Americans want solutions, when what they want is leadership. This was the failure of Senators Kerry and Dole, who in retrospect seemed more to be applying for a job in government, than they were fighting to lead a nation.

People who do a lot of thinking about Democracy are worried sick about things these days. They see a hyperpartisan landscape that has choked government’s ability to act. They see an electoral system that favors style over substance. They see mean-spirited campaigns filled with veiled (and not-so-veiled) name-calling. They see a primary schedule run amok, with a yearlong presidential campaign already underway.

But I see a system that has responded well to the desires of the ordinary Americans who do not tune into C-SPAN and care little about the full text of White House press conferences. This is an America that mistrusts a government that “acts,” that bases any number of day-to-day decisions on an intuitive sense of “style” (I do not mean fashion), and that appreciates a good fight.

At the end of our early primary season, we will have two candidates poised to do their best to convince us that they, and not their opponent, will lead us best. And people will decide — some by reading the white papers, but more by listening to the repeated sound bites.

Those sound bites, and bumper stickers, and slogans say more than the concerned would care to admit.

Long ago, I stopped “attending films” and instead decided I preferred to “go to the movies.” Around that time, I stopped basing my cinematic decisions on reviews but instead used movies’ own advertising to influence whether I would see a particular show. After all, a lot of thought goes into deciding just what aspect of a movie to highlight, in order to drive audiences. You can get a pretty good idea of whether you want to see something by reading its ad. My grand experiment has by and large worked very well. Even with the dogs (and there are a few), I am rarely surprised by what I get.

This is what the presidential candidates are trying to do. So far, they have done a pretty good job and the choices I face, along with the nation, are clear. Each party has a small handful of competing directions and will choose from among them. Those two will battle it out.

I hope they really go at it.

This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.

My middle school daughter has announced that her new favorite president is Calvin Coolidge. I do not believe it is due to his business-first approach to the Roaring Twenties. My daughter, herself a girl of few words, admires “Silent Cal” for his terseness. Would that this quality were shared by more people, in more arenas.

Instead, ubiquity and volume appear to be the chief attributes of words these days. The dictates of our respective markets call on us to be prolific, even beyond our abilities. “Content!” screams the machine, with little regard for its fodder’s taste or nutritional value. Book writers must create and re-create their sequels, at ever-increasing length. Nonfiction publishing houses feel the urge to flood the market in response to major events — within four to six months. Politicians must debate into the double digits, not because more debates are better, but because each niche, be it geographic, demographic, or ideological, demands its own morsel.

In consumer- or popular-culture, this is merely burdensome, as I choose between TMZ or PopSugar. But in public life it matters.

While many attitudes toward politics have shifted in various ways over the last decades, at least one thing has remained constant. Citizens feel less and less able to find relevant information. They report that they “can’t find out” what various candidates think about issues that matter to them. But how can this be? They’re talking so much, after all, what about all those debates?

The problem is that increasingly much of what is said is, civically speaking, junk food — devoid of nutrition. As the content-machine requires more and more, the ratio of junk to nutrition decreases. It becomes harder and harder for people to find out what they need and want to know. Yes, it’s out there. Just buried, or hidden in plain sight.

No great revelation: It’s a cycle that feeds on itself. More outlets need more material with which to fill their maws.

Creating “content” has become a job in its own right. This is in itself a capitulation. We need to reclaim lost ground, at least when it comes to the public square. Writers must see themselves as contributing to important discourse, not creating a product that may later get “re-purposed.” Politicians and pundits must have something to say, not simply a need to speak. The organizations that serve all this “content” up to eager viewers, listeners, and users must return to the now-quaint view of themselves as leaders with a duty to enrich the public square and not starve its soil.

It’s exactly who we have deposed whom we can most use long about now: editors.

A friend of mine, an editor at a newspaper, once told me that the role of an editor is to find out what the reader ought to know, and get them to want to know it. This, of course, seems anathema to the radically democratized world of information in which we now live. I can imagine the comments now, accusing me of being league with MSM. Indeed, I myself am, as a “blogger,” the beneficiary of today’s lowered barrier of entry into the “public voice” market. So I say this knowing I am pointing a finger at myself.

Yet it is this old-fashioned approach that we need in order to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio. So many new and useful voices have entered the public square (many on this site), at the same time as so much static. The lost role of editor can help me find quality, and help bring meaning back into public life.

In fact, the role of editor is needed not just in the news business, but throughout public life. We need people with backbone who will say no, put on the brakes, shoot down dumb ideas, and generally be grown-ups.

Looking around, there are so few grown-ups on the scene.

One of the Silent Cal anecdotes that had my daughter laughing out loud involves a dinner party. It is said that a young woman (in some tellings it is Dorothy Parker) found herself seated next to Coolidge. “I bet my husband,” she reportedly said, “that I can get you to say more than two words.” To which came the swift reply: “You lose.”

President Calvin Coolidge is also said to be the last president to write his own speeches. He regarded them as his chief works of art, laboring over each word, cutting, molding. Presidents now have speechwriters — in fact, office holders down to mayor now have them. Candidates now answer to a dozen and more “chief strategists,” all of whom has a bright idea for what ought to be said and how. It all adds up to more, more, more, backed by less, less, less.

To America, this glut of language says: “You lose.”