Demand Leadership This Time!

How far we’ve come in a lifetime.

I turned 50 a few weeks ago, and when I think about what’s happened during that time, historically speaking, it makes me smile.

When I was little, and I had just learned to read — I was about 4 or 5 — and my dad took me to the bathroom at the beach. The hand painted sign on the door read "Men," but poorly painted-over, I could make out another one a little to the left; and arrow and the word "coloreds." That would have been about 1962 or 1963.

About eight or nine years ago, I was doing research for a lawyer at a law firm. I had to peruse real estate ads Baltimore newspapers from 1963. What I saw shocked me somehow, as advertisements for homes and jobs clearly read "No Coloreds!" and "Whites only!" and some even read "Coloreds only!"

I felt chills as Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee the other night. I watched the entire speech, and I was proud of my country. Say what you will about the United States, but there are still few countries in the world in which someone with his background could compete with a woman of Hillary Clinton’s background for the leadership of the entire country.

And then I considered the fact that this country has been moving forward consistently, making significant social progress despite the fact that most of our leadership the last 40 or so years has been little more than pathetic.  Imagine how great this country could be with good leaders running the show.

I was born in 1958, and my first memories were of sitting in the
living room, my mother sitting on the couch and asking me to be quiet
because John F. Kennedy was about to give a press conference. Kennedy
press conferences were events; not just in our household, but
all over the country. And they were events, because he communicated
extremely well with the average person. He told us what we needed to
know, and he spoke to us as if we were all in this thing together.

In a strange way, I feel that true governmental leadership died when
JFK was assassinated.  Johnson was a master at getting legislation
through Congress, and he led the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts
through Congress and enforced them with the states, but he was not a
leader; he was a technician. Bobby Kennedy held the hope and promise of
restoring that leadership model in 1968 until he, too, was gunned down.
But since then, there has been very little in the way of "leadership"
in our government.

There have been flashes of brilliance, of course. Nixon created OSHA and the EPA, which was great, although he largely did so because the American people told him to. Jimmy Carter had the guts to install Paul Volcker as Fed Chairman, and  tighten the money supply and allow interest rates to skyrocket for a while, to put a chokehold on inflation, but he tended to follow polls too closely, and was far too enamored with "symbols." Ronald Reagan had the political stones to relinquish his "low taxes" shield long enough to shore up the floundering Social Security program, but most of his tenure consisted of a balancing act between political pragmatism and the insane demands of the Republican "base. The first Bush presidency offered no leadership other than the Gulf War, which he himself could have easily prevented. The Clinton presidency was better than Bush or Reagan, but there has never been a leader who seemed more afraid to take a bold stand than Bill Clinton, unless the polls backed him with at least 65% approval. And the second Bush presidency… there has been no greater disaster in our history; forget leadership;  the current occupant of the White House and his Merry Band are so arrogant and self-serving, they only care about polls enough to lie to affect them, and don’t care about doing the right thing for anyone but themselves.

Seriously, there has been little true and competent leadership in Washington in 40 years or more; especially since the neocons took over in 1980. In fact, with the neocons in charge, and putting roadblocks to progress, I feel like we’ve had something resembling anti-leadership for a while; especially the last eight years.

Yet, we have made a lot of progress in one generation. Those of us who remember the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were shot, the Christopher Street riots and the Equal Rights Amendment defeat have to be in awe of the fact that a black man and a woman just fought one of the toughest primary fights in US history, with the black man poised to become the next president, the woman a serious enough candidate to possibly run a second, more successful campaign, and that same-sex couples are on the cusp of finally getting their full equal rights, as well. Basically, during one of the darkest periods in our history, we have finally come to a point where anyone, regardless of race or gender, can be elected president, and same-sex couples can finally see the light at the end of a very long tunnel, to an end to one of the silliest denials of civil rights in our history.

But imagine what we could have done if we had good leadership in place; leadership that knew instinctively what was needed to keep society moving forward, and acted accordingly? Imagine if we had the full force of a good and strong leadership team assembled in Washington and our various state capitals, who could push with the tide rather than against it? If we can get to the point, within the space of one generation, to where we can consider a black man and a woman for president, and where we can begin to accept the reality of two men or two women choosing to live life as a married couple, what could we could do if we had leadership noble enough to lead us down the right path, rather than leadership that puts road blocks in front of progress every chance they get?

Think of the things we should have done, but haven’t done, because the leadership did the popular thing, rather than the popular thing. We should have cut our energy use by half by now, but we haven’t. We should have viable solar and wind power production systems in place by now, but instead, we’re using more oil and coal than ever, and facing a global crisis. We could have a welfare system in place that trains people for jobs and encourages them to get off of government assistance and into the workplace. We could have a national health care system, in which no one dies because of a lack of access to care, and no family is forced to sell their house to pay for getting sick, but we don’t. We could still be the world leader in manufacturing we once were, with a plethora of jobs and an economy that doesn’t have to create and exploit economic bubbles just to remain relevant, but we’ve become the outsourcing capital of the world. We could be the world’s leading economic power, but after about 40 years of neocon "leadership," we’ve become the largest debtor nation in world history, with a nearly non-existent manufacturing base and an economy that is falling far faster than anyone thought possible 30 years ago.

Even on the social front, we still have a long way to go. Even though it’s now more possible than ever, we still haven’t actually elected a black man to lead the country yet, and blacks still have a far higher unemployment rate and are more likely to be poor than everyone else. We still haven’t elected enough women to high office, either; they represent half the population, and there are but a handful in the House and Senate. And on the Supreme Court sits one black man and one white woman; not exactly a representative sampling, either. Beyond just demographics, there is also still far too much preoccupation with individual sexuality and religious belief to make us a truly progressive society.

It’s time we started demanding more leadership from our leaders, because we have a long way to go.

How do we do that? it’s actually easier than you think.

We can start by electing candidates who are most tuned in to what is right and wrong with society, and  demanding more from all government officials, at all levels of government,  when it comes to what is right and just. It’s not enough to have civil rights laws on the books; we have to go further. We elect leaders who know what the Constitution means. No more of these distractions about who’s "more Christian" than who, who has more "family values" and who wears flag lapels pins and is more "patriotic." This is all a load of crap. Where someone goes to church, who their pastor is, and who they choose to have sex with are not indicators of "values" that make for a good leader.

Let’s make something crystal clear here; no one is more patriotic than someone who puts the good of his country ahead of political party and everything else in his or her public life, and it’s time we demanded that from our leaders. Our standard should be the Constitution, not the Bible, and not someone’s individual interpretation of either. We have a huge body of law available to us; we should stop allowing people to reinterpret in a way that satisfies his or her view of how the world "should be." It’s time we demanded that our leaders consider the good of the country, the good of the citizenry as a whole and civil rights under the Constitution as the most important aspects of their service.

If one person has a right to do something, everyone should have that right; no more arbitrary standards for acquiring rights you were supposedly born with. If we all agree that everyone has a right to life, then there is no excuse for anyone to die because they don’t have "enough money" to gain access to health care. If we truly believe in liberty, then our leaders have to believe in liberty for all people, not just those whose "lifestyle" choices they approve. If we believe in the "pursuit of happiness," then our leaders should not obstruct our path to happiness, until such time as that pursuit crosses a line and actually interferes with another’s rights. The only time the government should interfere with any lawful activity is when public safety and security is an issue, and that should mean only actual safety and security; not just the tender sensibilities of prudes.

Beginning with this year’s elections, presidential, senatorial and congressional, it’s time we made clear that nothing else matters but finding leaders who understand their job is to uphold the Constitution. We have to make clear that we will no longer allow ourselves to be distracted by the constant sideshows that have marked election seasons past, especially those since the neocons’ takeover in 1980. It doesn’t matter who a candidate’s pastor is, or whether he or she did drugs in college, or dated a couple of sluts back in the day, or committed adultery, or is a Muslim, or an atheist, or drives a gas guzzler. What matters is that they believe strongly in the future of this country, and that basic Constitutional principles trump political opportunism.

Like I said; we have a lot of problems to deal with. We have to rebuild the economy into something that serves all of us, not just a select few. We must learn how to use half as much energy as we use, and find better sources for it. We have to encourage people to use fewer resources, and replace the resources we’ve already used, wherever possible. We have to pay down the staggering amount of debt we have built up, and not continue to saddle our children and grandchildren with a tax burden that we have been unwilling to take on. We must regulate commerce again, so as to make businesses accountable to the public, as the Constitution demands.

But most of all, we have to stop being a bunch of spoiled brats. Our parents and grandparents learned of sacrifice during the Great Depression and World War II, but subsequent generations seem to have forgotten it. Whereas the government used to be able to create millions of jobs through programs that served to build up the infrastructure of this country, now our leadership seems incapable of creating anything, and seek to "privatize" everything, thereby ceding what is ultimately our authority and accountability to private corporations, whose only real accountability is to stockholders, not the public.

Whereas in World War II, we managed to summon up the political will to be able to convert automobile plants to helicopter plants within eight weeks to aid the war effort, now we can’t seem to get automobile companies to make small cars with good gas mileage, without closing down plants and putting people out of work for a couple of years. Whereas we used to be able to see free college educations and mortgage assistance to soldiers as investments in the economy, now we tend to look at such things as "costs to be contained." We helped rebuild Europe 50 years ago; now we can’t even make our own pet food.

What’s happened is a leadership vacuum. During the last couple of generations, we grew soft, we grew stupid and we became irresponsible when it comes to society as a whole. Yet, even now, some of what made the United States of America great still shines through, and we still manage to make some progress as a society.

One of the more hopeful aspects of the Obama candidacy and his nomination is the reintroduction of "hope" into the political equation; it’s been missing for a while. We finally have a candidate who gets that he’s running for a job that is far more important and consequential than being "just like a CEO of a large corporation." The presidency — indeed all federal elected positions — entail a promise to "protect and defend the Constitution," which is a far more solemn responsibility than our last few presidents have understood. "We the people…" is what this job is about, and Barack Obama understands that to a greater degree than Hillary Clinton, and certainly more than John McCain. Not once during his campaign did he talk about himself; he discussed everything in terms of "us," or "We, the people…" This is a huge departure for presidential candidates in the recent past, and his acceptance by the rank and file of the Democratic Party, in the face of record turnout and one of the strongest political machines in recent political memory, is a testament to the fact that voters don’t just want a change in government personnel, but a complete change in government attitude.

This does not mean Barack Obama is the perfect candidate; not by any means. But when you listen to Obama’s message, and you watch him as he thinks about issues, you see a consistency that belies an honest approach. No matter how politically expedient it might have been for him to do so, Barack Obama never went off message during the entire primary season. He also shows an integrity that has been missing from politics for many years. He could have easily mimicked the fundraising standard of the last few decades, in which candidates courted big donors and bundlers and milked them for as much as possible, while winking and smiling and promising them things, in return for their "investment." Even if they didn’t promise anything, it looked like they made a promise. But Obama did things differently; instead of a few hundred huge donors, he counted on the masses, and broke fundraising records through small donations from voters who felt strongly enough about him to donate.

Whether or not Barack Obama turns out to be the type of leader we have needed for a generation — and we won’t know that for quite some time —  he cannot do it alone. We have to all work together to change the attitude of the electorate, which means a demand for standards and accountability at all levels of government. We have to hold Obama’s feet to the fire, and make him put the Constitution first once again, but we also have to make sure he has support all through the government. He can’t do the right thing for us, unless we make it clear he is to do so, and we provide him with enough support in Congress and at the state level to do so. if we are to create a truly progressive government, we have to stop being distracted by non-issues, and we have to put all of our weight behind progressive candidates, who put their country first, both before and after their election.

I have a very real sense the leadership vacuum is about to be filled, but it’s going to take all of us to help fill it.

Watch this blog to learn how…



Demand Leadership This Time! — 4 Comments

  1. We’ve made amazing progress (I’m about your age) for sure. I think overall the world is moving in the right direction – I believe we take something like two steps forward, one step back. If that one step back doesn’t kill us I have a lot of hope for the planet.
    One place where we lag and where I believe we are ready to evolve is how we deal with each other when we are political opponents. I really think we need to stop demonizing each other regardless of where our ideologies lie (lay?). I’m hopeful that the McCain-obama race will reach a new level of civility even as they work hard to show the distinctions between them. I know some of their supporters are going to be off the chain but if those two and their primary aides-de-camp can show a little dignity, well then maybe there will be hope for American democracy.

  2. I was born in 1960 and this has been a great era to experience on multiple levels, not the least of which experiencing the information/communication revolution which makes blogs like this possible. One thing occurs to me: that such change could occur despite the lack of political leadership shows that the impact of national politics on our country may be a bit overrated. Not only does culture change due to numerous factors, but activism on the local and state level has made a huge difference as well. That said, Obama has a chance to exercise real leadership at a time when economic collapse is a real possibility. We’re in an era I think is defined by ‘crisis and transition.’ Good leadership will emphasize the latter over the former.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post. I was born in ’60 and – believe it or not – my parents were such big JFK admirers that I do vaguely recall when he was president. I do remember watching his funeral procession with my parents. Your brief synopsis is good and you are correct that it is time we demand leadership. Keep up the good work.