Two to Tango

I’ve not blogged in the last week or so – still the world spins on its axis.  Leaders and followers dance, sometimes the one leading and the other following, sometimes the other way round.

Some recent reflections on the proceedings:

Michelle Obama

During her six and one half years in the White House, I have not generally been impressed by the First Lady. She has seemed both stymied and suppressed, a 21st century woman of considerable accomplishment who, for whatever reason, reverted back to a 20th century type – a First Lady who busied herself with woman’s work, such as eating well and being physically fit. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but she was muted in her concerns, more decorous than determined. Moreover, as I’ve written before, she did precious little to help her husband, to compensate for his introversion by helping to grease the wheels of Washington.

In recent weeks, however, Michelle Obama seems to have found her voice and her cause. Several times over she spoke to newly minted graduates, especially women and minorities at home and abroad, in a fierce but compassionate voice, urging them on no matter the odds against them. At Tuskegee University, for example, the historically black school, she described her early days on the national stage: “As potentially the first African-American first lady, I was also the focus of … questions and speculations….Was I too loud or too angry or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”  Each time over she was eloquent and inspirational, making palpable connections between herself and her audience. As importantly, each time she seemed at least to embrace the role of a leader who could get others to follow her difficult but finally famously rewarding personal and professional path.

James Billington  

When I was a graduate student at Yale in the 1970s, Billington was an intellectual idol. Author of The Icon and the Axe, a formidably impressive cultural history of Russia, he was widely considered one of the nation’s leading literary lions. It was no surprise, then, when in 1987 President Ronald Reagan nominated him to be the 13th Librarian of Congress, one of the nation’s leading literary posts. It is a position that Billington, now age 86, still holds. But he has become in his dotage an embarrassment, testimony to the folly of permitting a leader to remain a leader for nearly thirty years.

Turns out that Billington has presided over what is widely agreed now to be a colossal mess – the New York Times described “a series of management and technology failures at the library that were documented in more than a dozen reports by government watchdog agencies” (6/11). So whatever his previous accomplishments, the evidence is that the length of his tenure has damaged his own reputation and, much more importantly, the institution that he claims to cherish.

To be clear: Billington agreed finally to resign only because of pressure from other people. Even at his advanced age, and with the evidence mounting against him, he resisted leaving, telling an interlocutor only a week or so ago that he had no intention of retiring and that criticisms of him came only from rivals and disgruntled former employees. A delusion. But the fault is not his. If we allow anyone to remain in a leadership role for nearly thirty years, we enable them, which puts the blame for what goes wrong on our shoulders, not theirs.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn  

His saga has been, simultaneously, sordid and sad. It has also, to all appearances, just concluded. After four years of tortuous legal wrangling both in France and in the United States, the man who once was presumed in line for the French presidency was cleared in a French court of all the remaining charges against him.

Both at home and abroad Strauss-Kahn ran into trouble because of sex or, more precisely, because of his apparent sexual proclivities. He has been accused of rape, of assault, of pimping, and of engaging in “unnatural practices.” He has been ridiculed and scorned, and banished (at least for the time being) from the polite societies in which for decades he freely traveled. His wife – (very) rich and famous in her own right – finally divorced him. And in four years he has aged ten years. A recent photo of him arriving at a French court shows him looking haggard and old, at least in comparison with the sharp and dapper figure that he cut not long ago.

Strauss-Kahn is nothing if not clever. But he is also, simultaneously, a fool. Assuming for the sake of this discussion that he did not deserve time in prison, there can be no question that for many years he did participate, on something resembling a regular basis, in “sex parties” held in several cities in several countries. While the French have long been known for being tolerant and even blasé about the private lives of public figures, times change. The culture has changed – especially women’s willingness to remain mute about such matters – and the technology has changed. The very idea that in this day and age Strauss-Kahn could count on keeping his lascivious private life indefinitely private is absurd. Neither we nor he should be surprised by the fact that in short order Strauss-Kahn morphed from a man who was widely esteemed to one who was widely mocked. Fact is that in the 21st century followers are famously fickle.


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