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Elizabeth on Leadership

I’m probably not the only person who feels as though I’m in my 2000th day of captivity in the 2008 Presidential Election. I’ve been following this election nightly, daily, and sometimes hourly since the caucus in Iowa in January, and as we claw our way into the final weeks of this process, my thoughts have turned to leadership. In electing a President of the United States we, in effect, elect a person often referred to as the “leader of the free world”, and I suppose—given the nuclear arsenal at his or her command—this title with its clear implications of prepotency is not inaccurate. That being the case, I’ve been dwelling lately on the sort of qualities I hope to see in the next President of our country.

During this election cycle, I have come to understand that many people desire a President whom they can “have a beer with,” and I have to say that I have absolutely no interest in this sort of thing as I don’t require the leader of the free world to reassure me about his governmental expertise or his political intentions by showing a willingness to toss back boilermakers with the guys. I’m not sure where this all began, frankly, this need in some people to believe their Presidents are just ordinary Joes. To be honest, I don’t want an ordinary Joe to be elected as the leader of the free world. I don’t want an ordinary Joe to command a nuclear arsenal. With all due respect to the ordinary Joes in America, when it comes to someone in a position of such extraordinary power and such extraordinary responsibility, I want a particularly extraordinary person, and I can’t see why anyone would make any other kind of choice.

Thus this year I’m looking for a Real Leader. I’m using capital letters because considering the situation in which we find ourselves in the U.S. right now, I believe capital letters are called for. So I’ve been considering what elements constitute Real Leadership and, while I’m sure my readers all have their own definitions of a Real Leader, I’d like to share my thoughts on the topic. In referring to the potential President, by the way, I’m going to use the masculine pronoun. This is not because I believe the President should be a man because I do not so believe. Rather it is because our final two major candidates are male and it is between them, ultimately, that we will make our choice.

Calm, unshakable, and confident. I definitely want to see my President as a person to whom these three adjectives can be applied. The times we live in are perilous; the challenges we face are great. I want a President who is steady and who can, through a calm assessment of what is going on around him, come up with whatever plans might be necessary to take care of whatever crisis might erupt. I want a President who has the sort of self-confidence that allows him to hear the advice of experts, the sort of self-confidence that encourages these experts to speak their minds without fear of courting his displeasure, of losing their jobs, or of anything else that might prevent them from telling the truth as they see it. Indeed, I want a President who not only is able but also wants to have around him men and women who might disagree with his assessment of a situation, and I want him to be someone who is not the least threatened personally, politically, or intellectually when they disagree.

Decisiveness. I want a President who is capable of making a decision based upon what he sees, hears, learns, assesses, and evaluates and who makes that decision for the good of the people in the country and not because it underwrites his political future in some way or because it pays back a lobbyist to whom he owes favors. I want each of his decisions to be based on careful thought. I am not the least interested in a President who shoots from the hip—or from the mouth—because doing either of these things strongly suggests to me an uneasiness of temperament, a tendency toward anxiety, a troubling inability to cope with that anxiety, and a lack of thought, none of which, in my opinion, are desirable qualities in the leader of the free world.

Intelligence. I realize this will sound offensive to some people, but I believe I have to say it, if only to make my point: I am more intelligent than George W. Bush. In plain old test-it-up and serve-it-up-in-numbers, I am actually far more intelligent than George W. Bush. Despite this fact, I do not believe I am nearly intelligent enough to be President of the United States, and it seems to me that one of the reasons we are in the state we’re in right now is that we settled for someone who was barely average to run our country, figuring he would “have advisors” to help him out. To my way of thinking, this is absolutely crazy because why on earth would we want the leader of the free world to be barely average—with or without advisors—since a barely average person would be unlikely to understand what his advisors were telling him anyway? Somewhere along the line, Americans started to be afraid of intelligent people; somewhere along the line we began to pooh-pooh solid educations and stellar academic performance. Somewhere along the line we started using the word elite with a sneer to describe people who merely were using the brains God gave them to achieve something in their lives…as if this were a bad thing instead of something to admire and to which we might actually ourselves aspire! I’d like to go on record as being a supporter of intelligence in a Real Leader. I’d also like to go on record as being a supporter of that Real Leader’s doing something to demonstrate intelligence in advance of running for President: like being admitted to and graduating from a prestigious law school, like teaching at a university, like serving with distinction in public office, like having a successful career at something, like speaking eloquently, like being able to articulate ideas, like having ideas in the first place.

The Ability to Reassure. During the economic crisis we’ve been experiencing in the United States recently, there have been several approaches used by the candidates and by the current President. To talk about this crisis and how the ability to reassure fits in with it, I now must start naming names. My so doing will betray my choice of candidate, but clarity calls for the individuals to be named, so I will name them.

With banks collapsing, people losing their houses, jobs disappearing, and the stock market in freefall, we have several times seen President Bush come forward to stand behind the Presidential lectern and talk about the immediacy of dire consequences if we “don’t act now” to save the country from financial ruin. Congress must do this, Congress must do that, billions are needed to shore up this, billions more are needed to shore up that. We’re going to guarantee this, save that, help out here, give a bail out there. We’ll have to dip into Social Security. No, we’ll safeguard Social Security and dip into Medicare. We’ll get rid of entitlements. No, we’ll save entitlements. We’ll never disregard the needs of the military. We’ll cut taxes. We’ll keep on spending. While the President has been flailing around saying these sorts of things and apparently going ignored by everyone who makes decisions in these matters, we have seen Senator John McCain suspend his campaign, fly to Washington, charge into delicate negotiations on the bail out to shake things up and get a result, harangue members of the opposing party, harangue members of his own party, harangue his opponent in the election, then dash out to dinner with friends, and fly out of Washington, insisting on the bailout, talking about taxes, coming up with a plan to bail out homeowners, and then dismissing it all and turning his attention to a professor from the University of Illinois who espoused throwing bombs at governmental institutions 40 years ago.

As all this was going on, we’ve seen Senator Obama call together a group of economic advisors to assess the situation, come up with proposals, and look for alternatives. We’ve seen him appear in public, as calm and unflappable as he’s been from the first day of his campaign, staying with the same message he’s had from the beginning, making the same suggestions he’s made from the first. It even sounds like a relatively honest message to me because he’s saying something that simply rings true even if we don’t particularly want to hear it: If we want to have change in the United States, then it’s going to have to come from everyone, not just from the government, and this means people are going to have to think about making some sacrifices. Americans don’t generally like to hear this sort of thing. We have long preferred to elect our Presidents, wait for them to fix everything on their own, and then throw them out when this proves impossible. The fact that Senator Obama is pointing out that saving the country is not a one-man job is something I find oddly soothing because it is the truth. There is no Band-aid for this situation, he’s telling us, and it would be fantasy to pretend otherwise.

Serene. I was trying to come up with a better word for the opposite of bellicose because when it comes to the leader of the free world, a bellicose individual is the last sort I want sitting in the Oval Office with his finger near the red button. A bellicose leader turns first to weaponry. A serene leader turns first to diplomacy. I believe that we’ve been trying weaponry for a number of years now, and it hasn’t done much to win the hearts and minds of our fellow men in other countries, not to mention bring about stability and peace. You might believe that there’s absolutely no point to winning the hearts and minds of our fellow men in other countries, of course, in which case a bellicose President might be just the ticket for you. For me, however, winning hearts and minds seems a wise course of action, one that might eventually lead people to eschew trying to kill us through acts of terrorism.

On this issue of serenity versus bellicosity, there was a moment that, for me, was most revealing about one of our two candidates for President, and it occurred during a town hall meeting in which, in answer to a question about his plans for dealing with Iran, Senator John McCain sang to an old Beach Boys’ tune called “Barbara Ann” the words “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” He later said that he was “joking with a fellow Veteran” but I’d like to point out something about such joking.

When a candidate for President jokes about bombing a country, when that candidate makes the joke on national television, when he makes that joke about a country with whom we are having a bit of conflict, when that country is seeking nuclear weapons, then it is absolutely imperative upon us—the voters—to take a step back and give that candidate a long, cool headed, and discerning look. We need to do this especially when that candidate has accused his opponent of being “naïve” about suggesting establishing a dialog with that very same country he’s joking about bombing. We need to do that especially when that candidate has railed about his opponent’s “telegraphing his intentions” by saying he would go into Pakistan after Osama bin Laden if Pakistan itself were unwilling to capture him. You see, the candidate who apparently joked on national television about dropping bombs on a budding nuclear state can’t have it both ways. He can’t be himself Presidential material with his jokes about bombs while his opponent is not Presidential material with his suggestions about establishing diplomacy and dialog and the capture of Osama bin Laden.

I’m seeking a candidate who is reasoned and reasonable and one who does not attempt to manipulate me. I absolutely hate fear tactics, and I particularly loathe being pandered to. It seems to me that Senator McCain has gone into both fear and pandering in a very large way, perhaps with the knowledge that if a candidate manages to position Americans into being both foolish and afraid, they’re going to storm the polling places in November and cast their votes without considering what’s been said to them. He’s pandered to the voters with his suggestions of a holiday from gas taxes which would have gained the average American a roaring $28 dollars to spend with wild abandon, one supposes, on half a bag of groceries. He’s pandered to voters with his chants of “drill, drill, drill” as if he’s concluded people actually believe you can drill one day, find oil the next, and have gasoline drop to $1.50 a gallon on the third. He’s pandered to voters with his choice of a running mate, choosing someone he had met only once, someone who, one can only assume, was supposed to appeal to the women of America and to the religious right simultaneously. He has fuelled voters’ fears for their own safety by claiming that “we don’t really know” his opponent, a man who has been running for President for more than 20 months now. He’s encouraged this fear by refusing to call a halt to cries of “terrorist!” and “kill him!” that have gone on not only in his rallies but in the rallies of his running mate. To me, these are not the actions of a reasoned or reasonable individual.

In contrast, Senator Obama’s reasoned and reasonable approach to his campaign for Presidency illustrates much about his potential for being a Real Leader. I needed to look no further than the manner in which he chose his running mate to see that Senator Obama had no intention of pandering and even less intention of worrying people. His selection of Senator Biden came after months of vetting by a committee well-prepared—intellectually, politically, and educationally—to do such vetting. It came after numerous conversations with the Senator himself. It didn’t pander to the voters by presenting them with someone who was guaranteed to cement one part of the electorate into position. Instead, it balanced the ticket with someone whose long background in foreign affairs and foreign policy added a layer of expertise to a political team.

Transparency. I’m certain there are people who will argue that Senator Obama is not transparent because if he were, he’d tell us something damning about his relationship with that University of Illinois professor who espoused throwing bombs at government buildings 40 years ago. After all, there must be something there if he served on a committee with him and had a coffee klatch at his house in the 90s, mustn’t there?

Now, we can allow ourselves to be distracted by this matter, or we can look at other areas that, perhaps, might be equally important or even more important to concentrate upon. For me, there is one area in which I must have a transparent leader and that area is health. I believe it’s crucial that the leader of the free world be up to the job, and it seems to me that a Real Leader is someone willing to allow people access to his medical records in order to ascertain his ability to withstand the rigors of the Presidency.

Senator McCain is not transparent in this area. With medical records 1,200 pages long, he permitted a group of hand-picked reporters access to these records with the proviso that the reporters leaf through them within three hours and with no ability to take notes from what they read. Additionally, the hand-picked reporters were not allowed to take cell phones into the room with them, nor were they allowed tape recorders, paper, pencils, pens, computers, or anything that smacked of the reporters’ interest in doing a story on the records.

This caused me a bit of concern because the Senator is 72 years old and because he has had melanoma—the most virulent form of skin cancer—four times. Since one of my aunts died of melanoma and since my own mother had a body part removed due to melanoma, the word melanoma rings a few alarm bells in my head. The alarm bells might have been silenced had the Senator released his medical records. Since he did not, I find myself in a position of wondering what is hidden within them.

In contrast, Senator Obama released all his records. In them we discovered nothing of grave concern. Personally, I hope he is able to keep his promise to his wife and stay away from cigarettes (and I do wonder why he ever started smoking in the first place…but then I wonder that about everyone), but there is no boogeyman hiding in the closet of his health, waiting to jump out and tackle him to the ground.

The end game for me is that I think it would be terrific to have in the White House a Real Leader whose life is a model for young people everywhere. I see this in Senator Obama’s life, and his is the kind of life I’ve always admired. He made it pretty much on his own. He didn’t get into a good prep school in Hawaii as a young teenager because he knew someone who could grease the skids for him. He got in on his own merit. He went to college on his own merit as well and he got into law school in just the same way. When he talks about hope and challenges and the world of possibility, he knows exactly what he is talking about. He’s lived all of it, and he stands as a remarkable example of everything that is possible for a child when America remembers what America is actually supposed to be about.

To be honest with you, most the time I cannot begin to assess how lucky we are that Senator Obama decided to run for President and to expose himself to what he surely knew was going to be a grueling campaign. He either really likes the thought of listening to the Marine Corps Band play “Hail to the Chief” in this honor, or he’s got some ideas about how we might dig ourselves out of the mess we’re in.

- Elizabeth George
Whidbey Island, Washington

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