Nancy Pelosi is the highest ranking and most consistently successful female politician in American history. Trouble is that she, like so many of her male counterparts, does not know when to let go. Or does know when to let go but can’t stand to let go. Power being not so much, as Henry Kissinger famously said, the ultimate aphrodisiac, as the ultimate addiction. Once you taste it you crave it.
During her long, illustrious career, Pelosi has been Speaker of the House of Representatives and Minority Leader. But, recently, in her capacity as Minority Leader she presided over an electoral debacle. Come January the Republicans will control not only the presidency, but both the House and the Senate, and two out of every three governorships. Bad – bad leadership.
Which is precisely why most everyone who has had a leadership role in the Democratic Party should resign – for they have failed. Under their leadership the party has suffered a string of stinging losses, from which it will take years to recover. For Pelosi this should be a no-brainer. She has clung to her leadership role for well over a decade, she is long past retirement age, and though once she was excellent, now she is not. Now she is unable creatively, dynamically, effectively, to lead.
Too many people hang on for too long. If Pelosi wants to leave with her reputation intact instead of in tatters, she must get out sooner not later.
One of the most iconic scenes in American film history is in Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 black comedy, “Network.” Peter Finch stars as Howard Beale, a network news anchor who’s about to be canned because of declining ratings. Beale starts to unravel while he’s on the air. He becomes visibly unhinged, screaming at his viewing audience, urging them to do what he’s doing – to shout at the top of their lungs, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
The line came to mind while reading today’s New York Times, which testified yet again not only to how furious people are, but to how hellbent they are on fighting people in positions of authority.
• South Koreans, fed up with their president, Park Geun-hye, have taken to the streets in the hundreds of thousands to protest her refusal to respond to charges of corruption and influence peddling. South Korea’s worst political crisis in decades shows no signs of abating. Ms. Park remains defiant. The people remain defiant as well – demanding that she either resign or be impeached.
• The mayors of several of America’s largest cities have vowed to fight any order to deport illegal immigrants, even if instructed by the federal government to do so. Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti, Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, and New York’s Bill de Blasio, among others, have all pledged to fight the feds on this, even if it means losing millions of dollars in federal assistance.
• After decades of staying silent, at least six former English soccer players have come forward with accusations of sexual abuse by coaches affiliated with England’s Football Association. More than twenty other players have similarly stepped up, though anonymously. After a couple of weeks of doing nothing the Football Association concluded it had no choice but to announce it would investigate the claims. It appointed a lawyer experienced in such matters to pursue the case.
Who knew Howard Beale was forty years ahead of his time?!
I started blogging four years ago. Since then I have written regularly about Vladimir Putin.
Why? Three reasons. First, my master’s degree is in Russian and East European Studies, and old habits die hard. Second, for years I have thought, as has, famously, Mitt Romney, that Russia, not China or North Korea or any other state, was our “#1 geopolitical foe.” Third, Putin is the exception that proves the rule: he is a strong leader, a change agent at home and especially abroad, during a time when having a strong impact is rare.
What Putin has accomplished in the last four years is breathtaking! He remains in complete control of Russia, having in one or another way destroyed or muted his political opposition. He has changed the map of Europe by seizing Crimea and declaring it a fait accompli. He has intervened in Ukraine, precluding most Ukrainians from doing what they wanted to do, move closer to the West. He has thumbed his nose at Europe, watching with unmitigated pleasure as the European Union, the greatest diplomatic achievement of the last 70 years, has started to unravel – and watching with unmitigated pleasure as the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) comes under threat. He has inserted and asserted Russia’s military presence in the Middle East, in strong support of his client, Syria’s ruthless, murderous president, Bashar al-Assad. And he has hinted at further military adventure in, say, Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania. He has, in sum, been devilishly effective in transforming his nationalist, revisionist, revanchist, and militarist fantasies into realities.
Oh…one more thing. There is growing evidence that Putin had a hand in the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States. Trump his unwavering admirer. Trump his presumed pal. Trump, whose ideologies, policies, and proclivities more closely mirror Putin’s than any presidential candidate in American history.
In recent days The Washington Post chronicled “the successful effort by a hostile foreign power to manipulate public opinion before the vote.”* Scary stuff. During the campaign questions were raised about why Trump regularly praised President Putin, while refusing ever to censor him. Seems Trump knew what he was doing – in exchange Putin helped Trump win the White House. U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed that Russia did hack private e mail accounts, did forge a useful relationship with Wikileaks, did release fake news stories, did put its foot on the Democratic National Committee, and did echo and amplify right-wing web sites that portrayed Hillary Clinton as a “criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to shadowy global financiers.” **
As a student of bad leadership I long ago learned carefully to clarify what I mean when I say that a leader is bad. The distinction is between being ethical and being effective. Which is precisely why in some ways Putin is a bad leader. And in other ways Putin is a good leader.
• For Barack Obama, who since the second Donald Trump was selected to succeed him has never been better as president.
• For Donald Trump, who since he became president-elect has shown faint signs of sense and sensibility.
• For Bernie Sanders, who will continue to fight the good fight.
• For Chuck Schumer, whose long, strong record as a leading Democrat and master of the Senate will serve his nation well.
• For Melinda Gates, who with every passing year further cements her status as a formidable philanthropic force.
• For American voters, on the safe assumption that most all were well-intended.
• For American institutions, built to bend while staying strong – so far.
• For the American landscape, simultaneously dangerous fragile and breathtakingly beautiful.
• For the Chicago Cubs, who won the World Series for the first time since 1908 – in a nail-biter of a game 7 no less.
• For Leonard Cohen – yes, he was Canadian and is recently deceased, but no matter – whose ravishing, immensely and invariably moving “Hallelujah,” will forever be an anthem.
Much has been written in recent months about the return of the strongman-leader. In many nations around the world leadership has reverted to personalized authoritarianism – to governments in which single individuals, invariably men, lead with an iron fist. Russia, China, Turkey, Egypt, Philippines, Hungary – all are examples of countries that have become less free than they were because they have regressed to one-man rule. Moreover, followers, voters and nonvoters, in countries such as India, Japan, and now the United States have embraced leaders with a similar tendency to centralize power – notwithstanding the democracies within which, supposedly, they are situated.
A clear indicator that leader-power is being strengthened while follower-power is being weakened, is the rehabilitation of dead leaders famous for being authoritarian if not actually totalitarian. In Russia, for example, Stalin has been rehabilitated – brought out of the shadows back into the light. It is estimated that under Stalin some 20 million Soviet citizens perished. Notwithstanding, Stalin is being hailed once again as a strong leader who led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and stood up to the West during the Cold War. Last December Russia’s Communist Party ostentatiously honored Stalin’s birthday, celebrating him with flowers and speeches that testified to his “genius and talent.” All this, obviously, with blessings from above, that is, from President Vladimir Putin.
In China Mao Zedong has been rehabilitated. It has been estimated that under his Great Leap Forward some 45 million Chinese died. Notwithstanding, Mao’s reputation has been resurrected in the nation’s discourse, allowing him, in death, to reclaim his status as the single most important figure in the nearly 100-year history of the Chinese Communist Party. All this, again, with blessings from above, that is, from President Xi Jinping, who has taken to extolling Mao as the Party’s founding father, and embracing him as a symbol of nationalism and populism.
The most recent example of such a resurrection is in the Philippines. After twenty years in power, most as a corrupt and ruthless dictator shielded by martial law, Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in 1986. He fled to Hawaii, where he died three years later. Four years after that his remains were returned to the Philippines, to his hometown, where they have stayed ever since – until now. Now, last week, with the blessings of the mercurial and, yes, ruthless new president, Rodrigo Duterte, Marcos was given a surprise and very private hero’s funeral in the Philippines national cemetery. Why? For the same reason that Stalin’s reputation was rehabilitated – and Mao’s. It is to get the past to legitimize the present. It is to get dead strongmen to testify on behalf of live strongmen. It is to get authoritarian leadership to trump democratic leadership.
Richard Nixon anyone?