President Pete III (Following a Faith)

In her recent book, Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, Sara Georgini explores “how pivotal” to the family was Christianity. It shaped their political decisions for three centuries, beginning with John Adams and his wife, Abigail. Though it sounds quite quaint – the last president to wear his Christianity on his sleeve was Jimmy Carter – there is one candidate now running for the White House, Pete Buttigieg, to whom Christianity is similarly central.

In a recent speech that garnered a lot of attention, Buttigieg framed his being gay in the context of his faith. Though Vice President Mike Pence was not present for the occasion, Buttigieg addressed his former colleague from Indiana directly. To Pence, a conservative, who is well known for, for example, opposing gay marriage, Buttigieg said that his own recent marriage to a man had, “yes, Mr. Vice President, moved me closer to God.”

Presumably neither Christianity nor sexuality is relevant to who should be the next president. However, Americans generally equate being a person of faith with being a person who has a moral framework. This is not, of course, to make a general statement. It is certainly not to suggest that those who do not follow a faith have no moral framework. Or that those with a moral framework have one with which I, say, agree. Nevertheless it is to suggest something specific about a specific candidate, Buttigieg, who clearly has thought extensively about many moral issues and who, in consequence, has reached certain conclusions, some of them quite recently. (An example: he reached the decision to be openly gay only in thirties.)

The president we have now is amoral. He lacks a sense of rightness, and of wrongness, or maybe it’s that he just doesn’t care. He does in any case, in his capacity as president, violate some of the most fundamental standards of decency and integrity. Which should, but likely will not, evict him from the Oval Office.

I cannot opine with any certainty about what Pete Buttigieg would be like as president of the United States. But I can opine with some certainty about his approach to the nation’s highest office – which would differ in nearly every aspect from that of his predecessor. At the top of the list would be prioritizing good character and moral rectitude – in the present tragically absent, in the future unambiguously evident.        

Hillary’s Revenge

Relationships between leaders and followers are grist for our mill. We readily acknowledge their importance. Much less discussed, though they are of equal importance, are relationships between leaders and leaders.

The thought comes to mind this morning, as I think of Hillary Clinton whose shot at the White House was badly impaired if not entirely derailed by the Trump campaign’s willingness to work with Russians. This the Mueller Report has proven beyond doubt.     

For most of the time Trump has been president Clinton has been silent. In the last couple of years, she has mostly retreated from public life. But on this morning after – after the publication of the Mueller Report – the question is what if anything will she do in response? Attention has been focused on the Democrats, especially those in Congress. How will they react? But at least as interesting and potentially as important is the response of Trump’s opponent during the 2016 presidential campaign – who we now know for certain was cheated out of the chance to become the first woman president of the United States.

Hillary Clinton has never been America’s sweetheart. The rap against her is that she’s always been too tough to be likeable, too wily to be trusted, too ambitious to be seemly. Moreover, if she spoke up now, even with massive objective evidence to support her claim, she would be promptly dismissed by those who saw her as just having an axe to grind. Finally, even if she stays silent, she can be rest assured that history will take her side. Trump has been proven a liar and a cheat and the Russians outrageous interventionists.

Still, in the wake of the Mueller Report I hope Hillary Clinton opens her mouth. I hope she says or does something as opposed to nothing. I hope she does not take what happened to her without one more time taking on the man who did it to her.    

President Pete? II (Trump in Reverse)

When Americans have a choice which leaders to put in place, their attention spans are short. All things being equal, we get easily bored or maybe it’s impatient with the leaders we have, and so we want the leaders we don’t have. This holds truer now than it did before, given the speed with which things change and information and ideas spread. (In 2018 the average tenure of CEOs of S&P 500 companies fell by fully one year, from six to five years.)

This does not hold true all the time. When the leader we have is exceptional and, or, when the times in which we live are exceptional, we’re content and sometimes even eager to stay with the leader we know, as opposed to the one we do not. It’s no accident that Americans were reluctant to let go of a great man, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, even after more than a decade in office. After all, it was he who led the nation to recovery from a great depression and to victory in a great war.

But President Trump is no President Roosevelt – which explains in part why there’s every indication that many if not most Americans are restive. Trump’s preternatural ability to hold on to his base has been impressive if not astounding. But his base is not large, and he has not shown the slightest inclination to try to expand it. Hence, it’s possible if not probable that we’re in a time when a large part of the electorate will be looking for a presidential candidate who is altogether new and altogether different from the incumbant.

Several of the democratic contenders would seem to fit the bill. A woman from California with an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, Kamala Harris. A skateboarding upstart from Texas, Beto O’Rourke. A longtime socialist from New England by way of Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders.  There’s no shortage, in short, of Democratic candidates who seem radically different from, diametric opposites to, Donald Trump.

But none I would suggest more than Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg is temperamentally and ideologically a moderate. Trump is not. Buttigieg is intellectually competent and curious. Trump is not. Buttigieg is demonstrably a moralist and a man of faith. Trump is not. Buttigieg is from a small town in America’s heartland. Trump is not. Buttigieg served in the American military, including a tour abroad. Trump did not. Buttigieg is informed and articulate. Trump is not. Buttigieg is openly gay and speaks of his spouse with deep love and immense respect. Trump is not and does not. Buttigieg is open and disclosing. Trump is not. Buttigieg is unfailingly polite and the discourse in which he engages is reliably civil. Trump is not and does not. Buttigieg seeks to calm whatever the roiling waters. Trump does not. Buttigieg is a unifier. Trump is not. Buttigieg is Trump in reverse. Trump is Trump.

President Pete? – I (Experience and Expertise)

This is the first of a series of three short posts on “Mayor Pete.” On Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who yesterday formally declared his candidacy for president of the United States.

On page one of my most recent book, Professionalizing Leadership, I wrote that one of the peculiarities of Donald Trump’s ascendency to the presidency was his being elected “without any political, military, or government experience or expertise whatsoever.” In fact, the book is about how critically important it is to conceive of leadership as a profession. As a profession for which any candidate for any leadership role should have been reasonably rigorously educated, trained, and developed.

Which raises this question about Buttigieg: Is he qualified? Given his young years (he is 37), and his relatively limited experience as mayor of a medium sized city, does he match up? The comparison to Trump is easy – that’s how low was his bar. But is Mayor Pete good enough in his own right? Expert enough, experienced enough for serious voters to take him seriously as candidate for the American presidency?

Buttigieg’s relative youth raises the question of what should be the professional qualifications for president of the United States? In keeping with my earlier quote, I’ll stick with “experience” and “expertise” – presidential candidates should be in some ways demonstrably experienced, and in some ways demonstrably expert. Bottom line in this case? Buttigieg measures up.

  • He has been supremely well educated, not only at home but abroad.
  • He has served in the American military, as a Naval Intelligence officer, including a tour in Afghanistan.
  • He has had exposure to and experience in the private sector, having worked for three years for McKinsey, the famed management consulting firm.
  • And he is in his second term as mayor, having been first elected in 2011 and reelected in 2015.

One could reasonably argue that Buttigieg has packed into a relatively few years a string of experiences and accomplishments that most of us will never attain. If you throw into the mix the narrative of a man who passed the personal and political litmus test of marrying another man, you have a presidential candidate whose professional qualifications cannot legitimately be thrown into question.

Extracting Trump

Getting rid of bad leaders – exchanging them for better ones – is usually exceedingly hard. It’s exceedingly hard in business as well as politics, exceedingly hard in Russia as well as Tunisia, exceedingly hard in 2019 as it was in 1919.

There are reasons for this, only two, and they’re simple. The first is that bad leaders generally prefer, strongly, to stay rather than go. They have tasted power and authority and their appetite was not satiated, rather it was whetted. The second is that followers generally have no easy-to-see recourse. They are too busy, distracted, or alienated sufficiently to care. Or they are too disorganized to be effective. Or they cannot figure out how to push against those more powerful than they. Or they are too scared to make a move – scared they will put themselves at personal risk, political risk, or professional risk.  In consequence of action that is ineffective, or of no action at all, bad leaders linger. They linger far longer than they should because there is no easy way to remove them.

Democracies are presumed to protect people against precisely this dysfunction. Free and open elections, held at regular intervals, are intended to mitigate against bad leadership by providing a legal recourse, a way, say, every two years or four for the electorate to throw the rascal out. To vote out of office any elected official who does not measure up.

In the United States of America this system has worked reasonably well. This is not to say that all our leaders have been good or, for that matter, that all our followers have had equal voice. Rather it is to say that most of the time both leaders and followers have abided by the rules of the game. Specifically, when elected officials lose at the ballot box, or are in some other way forced out, they usually, reliably, have taken their leave. Notable case in point: when President Richard Nixon realized that he was likely to be impeached, he chose voluntarily to resign.

But what would happen if leaders and followers, or even just some leaders and followers, did not abide by the rules of the game? If they resisted the rules of democratic governance rather than played by them?

I raise these questions not as an abstract exercise, but rather because I think it likely that they will arise sooner, not later. It is improbable that President Donald Trump will be impeached. Instead, his political opponents, most obviously the Democrats, seem to be waiting until the 2020 election to push out Trump by voting Trump out. Their intention though is based on two key assumptions. The first is that whoever the Democratic candidate for president in 2020 will win. The second is that if Trump loses the election, he, like his predecessors, will go graciously.

If you buy this second assumption, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Seems to me that the only way to extract Trump from the White House without him fiercely resisting – by, say, insisting the election was rigged and demanding recourse – is to beat him in a landslide. To impose on him a defeat so complete, so unambiguous, that his tantrum will be in vain.   

Caro on the Powerful – and the Powerless

Robert Caro is arguably America’s preeminent biographer. His masterpieces of political biography include one tome on Master Builder Robert Moses and, so far, four (with a final one yet to come) on President Lyndon Johnson. For his accomplishments Caro has won every significant literary prize his country has to offer.

Instead of striving in his early eighties to complete volume five on Johnson, Caro took a detour. He’s just published Working, which describes in depth his experiences as a researcher and writer.   

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour about his most recent book, Caro said that after writing about power for more than a half century, he had learned this.  

I learned that it’s not enough to write about the … men who wield [power], you have to write also about the powerless. What is the effect on people without power who are affected by government? Either their lives are changed for the better or for the worse. Either Robert Moses or Lyndon Jonson brought them something, or they stood in their way, ruined them. And I [came to] feel that you have to show, as I said, not just the powerful but the powerless – otherwise books about power are somewhat incomplete.  

The Tragedy of – the Irony of – Egypt

At least I hedged my bets. Though in my 2012 book The End of Leadership, I described Egypt as perhaps the most important example of the promise of the Arab Spring, I did add that it was “too early to conclude much if anything about the recent upheavals in the Middle East.” Still, I, like many others, thought it possible if not probable that what was happening in Egypt was foretelling a future in which authoritarianism in the region would be out, and democracy in.  

To the contrary. The Arab Spring foretold a future all right, just not the one that the throngs in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (as well as many of the experts) originally envisioned. As it turned out, no country was more of a harbinger of the recent trend toward total control by leaders of followers than Egypt.

The current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is far more of an authoritarian than was his three decades-long predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. In fact, Sisi is not an authoritarian leader, he is a totalitarian one. He governs with the assistance of a small, secret, claque of advisors, mostly military men. He controls every institution and organization of government, including the courts and intelligence agencies.  He reaches into the nation’s economy, to keep under his baleful eye every center of power that could possibly compete with his own. He completely contains the media, old media and new, threatening with imprisonment anyone who in any way dissents. He dominates the arts, to be certain to staunch the free flow of information and ideas.  And he has set himself up as an exemplar to be emulated – in order to exclude everyone and everything remotely alien and everyone and everything remotely threatening.

History attests this cannot last. There will come a day when the roof blows off the house that Sisi built. Till then though, Egypt remains a dangerous place for anyone unwilling slavishly to toe the line.  Till then though, Egypt remains a grim reminder that movements and moments like the Arab Spring can as well morph into cruel ironies as great victories.

Context is Critical… by Tom Friedman

I didn’t write it. He did, Friedman. In his April 3rd column in the New York Times, titled, “The U.K. Has Gone Mad.”

“I also get what it means to be a leader in the 21st century.

What do the most effective leaders today have in common? They wake up every morning and ask themselves the same questions: ‘What world am I living in? What are the biggest trends in this world? And how do I educate my citizens about this world and align my polices so that more of my people can get the best out of these trends and cushion the worst?”

Leaders and Money

On March 18th the Wall Street Journal published the most recent figures on CEO pay.

Highlights: 

  • In 2018 most CEOs snagged a hefty pay raise. Median compensation for 132 chief executives of S&P 500 companies was $12.4 million. This was up from $11.7 million in 2017.
  • The median year to year increase for CEOs was 6.4% – even though most companies had shareholder returns that were decidedly less than stellar.
  • During the same period, wages for those the Journal describes as “ordinary workers” also rose. However, they didn’t rise nearly as much. Average hourly pay for nonsupervisory workers was up 3.5 % from a year earlier.   
  • One of the most highly paid of corporate leaders was Robert Iger, Disney’s famously successful CEO saw his paycheck rise 80% – from $36 million in 2017 to $66 million in 2018.

Nor are private sector leaders a breed apart. Many if not most prominent public sector leaders are similarly wealthy, which similarly separates them from those they lead.

  • Vladimir Putin is worth an estimated 200 billion dollars
  • Donald Trump is worth an estimated 3 billion dollars
  • Robert Mugabe is worth an estimated 1 billion dollars
  • Emmanuel Macron is worth an estimated 31 million dollars

Given what almost always is an enormous disparity in wealth between leaders and their followers, one might think that some leaders would lead on precisely this issue. That they would voluntarily reduce their income in order to level the playing field at least somewhat. In order to reduce at least somewhat the yawning gap in financial assets between them, the privileged few, and everyone else, the unprivileged many.

Since the financial crisis, one of the most insidious sources of friction worldwide is the divide between those who are rich, especially those who are exceedingly rich, and those who are not. Ironically, it is precisely on this issue that good leadership is lacking. Not just leadership as public policy. But leadership as personal commitment. Leadership as role modeling. Leadership by example – in this case by taking a sizable cut in take home pay.     

Fractured Followers – in the US, in the UK

Once upon a time, long, long, ago, the Americans and the British were united. They were united within – within the United States and within the United Kingdom. And they were united without. Against common, outside, foes, notably Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. And for each other, with each other, the Americans and the Brits celebrating their common language, their “special relationship,” and their shared Anglo-American heritage.

Those days are over. It’s not that we no longer have anything in common. To the contrary, we do. It’s just that what we have in common is not unity, but disunity. The most striking thing about the American people these days is not the ties that bind them, us, but the fights that divide them, us. The fights over people and politics, over private preferences and public policies. Similarly, the most striking thing about the British people these days is not the ties that bind them, but the fights that divide them. Fights that focus on Brexit but that cut to the core of British history, British identity, and the British economy.

By now President Donald Trump is thoroughly distrusted and intensely disliked by a large percentage of the American people. By now Prime Minister Theresa May is thoroughly disrespected and largely disregarded by an even larger percentage of the British people. But this is not about them, our leaders, it’s about us, their followers, the American people and the British people.

It’s easy enough to dismiss the times in which we live as atypically fractious. But, it’s just as easy to see them as harbingers. Harbingers of a future that does not bode well for those among us who are democrats – with a small “d.”

Two signs I don’t like. First, however you look at it, the Brexit mess represents a threat to the European Union. Which is to say that it threatens one of the single most successful political experiments in history. Second, there has been the presumption that democracy is necessary to prosperity. But, in the last few years, this assumption has crumbled. It’s now evident that countries rated “not free” can provide their people with high standards of living. Which means that in the future, as opposed to in the past, democracy will have to stand, or it will fall, on its own merits. Merits such as the freedom from fear to speak your mind.

Both the US and the UK are suffering from failures of leadership. If failures of followership follow, we’re done. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”