Leadership is the kind of lofty and abstract subject I don’t usually ponder; most of my thoughts are far more mundane. But recent events and experiences have made me consider it.
First, curiosity led my wife and me to political commentator Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally on the National Mall. We wanted to see how this odd -- some would say unhinged -- hyper-emotional media personality and promoter, who started out in Top 40 morning zoo radio, was able to summon so many people from around the country to a rally that’s purpose was so vague -- even to Beck. He admitted in his speech that, “We didn’t know what we were going to do when we got here.”
A fascinating analysis by civil rights historian Taylor Branch in The New York Times reveals that Beck evidently experienced some kind of transformative moment while planning the event, deciding to make it spiritual, not political, and to embrace the civil rights movement rather than disparage it as he had done so often in the past. Instead, he and other speakers invoked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., who had spoken from the same spot 47 years earlier. “We must get the poison of hatred out of us,” Beck implored the vast crowd. “Go to your churches, your synagogues, your mosques, anyone that is not preaching hate and division, anyone who is not teaching to kill another man.”
This isn’t exactly what I expected to hear, nor I suspect did many others in this very polite, nearly all-white crowd of middle-class Americans. I have no idea what this will mean for Beck and his “restoring honor” movement. Will it presage a more permanent change in tone and direction or not? And either way, will he remain its leader?
Then we went to see Invictus, the film about Nelson Mandela’s bold move to unite white and black South Africans after his release from 27 years in prison, the ensuing demise of apartheid and his election as the new nation’s first president. Mandela embraces, of all things, the nation’s rugby team and hosting this year’s World Cup, even though the sport and team are closely associated with the white minority Afrikaners who had imprisoned him. In an understated, yet moving way, the film explores leadership -- both Mandela and the rugby team’s young captain, who is inspired by what he learns of how much his new president overcame in all those years in that tiny cell. Needless to say, this young man of conscience leads the South African team to an upset victory.
Then came the surprising news on Sept. 7 that one of the nation’s pre-eminent political leaders, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, would be retiring after 22 years in office. It prompted another unusually strong and blunt mayor, New York City’s Michael Bloomberg, to call Daley a transformational leader. “He’s a doer, has guts, has beliefs. … If you called Central Casting and said, ‘Send me a great, forward-thinking mayor who does the job and doesn’t pander,’ that’s who they’d send.”
This is all true. Daley is a visionary who remade his city -- not only its dazzling downtown, but much of its public housing, parks, libraries and other amenities. He did the “soft” stuff, like adding miles of bike trails and thousands of trees, but he also took on the dangerous task of making improvement in the schools his responsibility. He is one of the outstanding political leaders we’ve seen in the past two decades.
It’s a time when we sure could use more like him. All levels of government are facing significant challenges that, if not met, will only become increasingly serious. Washington, D.C., must invigorate an anemic economy while devising a plan to prevent what now is being called the most predictable financial crisis in our history -- the implosion caused by our mushrooming national debt. States and localities will have to confront their imbalances, which increasingly are seen as structural, not cyclical. From the White House to the smallest county courthouse, solutions must come from people willing to lead and ask for sacrifices for the common good.
A recent article in The New Yorker about the U.S. Senate, titled The Empty Chamber, vividly describes the dysfunction and myopia that defines Washington today. There’s a huge surplus of special interest money, but very little trust. The chamber, a generator of ideas and inspiration three or four decades ago, has become the domain of ideologues and charlatans. Senators of good will who want to practice the time-honored politics of compromise and consensus are pressured into uncomfortably rigid ideological positions. There is little interest in crafting solutions.
As noted by David Rothkopf, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace visiting scholar, the debate between the two parties “is about assigning blame rather than assuming responsibility. It’s a contest to see who can give away more at precisely the time they should be asking more of the American people.”
Given the level of discourse in these elections, it’s hard to see where the leadership we need throughout our federal system -- the leadership that in different ways Daley gave Chicago or Mandela gave South Africa -- will come from.