THE BLOG

Echos of Leadership

09/16/2012 05:24 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2012

Anniversaries of milestone political events help us reflect on the pivotal moments in our history. And when deserved, they're cause for celebration. But when our nation-birthing, world-changing Constitution turns 225 on Monday, our celebrations and reflections will be muted, at best.

We -- The People -- have other things on our minds.

Americans may be deeply divided, but there's one thing most of us agree on. Our system for addressing our political problems -- our Government -- is broken. And there's little chance it can or will fix itself -- regardless of who is president, or which party controls Congress. As a result, we've become angry or frustrated, with far too many of us tuning out altogether, believing there's no way to make our voices heard effectively.

I've argued elsewhere that that's not really true. But that's not my point here. Political leadership is. And how the more things change in politics, the more they stay the same.

Consider another milestone anniversary that recently came and went with little notice. This past June 11 marked 50 years from the day that John F. Kennedy gave a masterful and eerily prescient Commencement Address at Yale University.

Like so many of his speeches, it was filled with pitch-perfect insights and grown-up themes. He was making the case that you can't simply depend on the old ways of doing things in the face of new challenges. And you surely can't get very far using empty language and comforting myths -- and remaining impervious to facts. Sound familiar?

The dialogue between the government and the public is clogged by illusion and platitude and fails to reflect the true realities of contemporary American society... As every past generation has had to disenthrall itself from an inheritance of truisms and stereotypes, so in our own time we must move on from the reassuring repetition of stale phrases to a new, difficult, but essential confrontation with reality.

The reality he was speaking of was the fact-challenged pandering and manipulative nature of political discourse in his day. He talked about how that was negatively impacting three major issues of great concern in the early '60s -- the size and role of government -- fiscal policy (and debt & deficits) -- and business and public confidence in the economy and government.

Is there an echo in here?

Just like Bill Clinton used intelligence and wit (in his recent DNC speech) to deconstruct and obliterate Republican attacks on President Obama, Kennedy's rhetoric ripped into the fact-abuse prevalent in his time. But he had a more nuanced point to make as well. To the extent that some of his more serious opponents still relied on facts to address problems, he critiqued them as mired in the past, inflexibly wedded to solutions that previous generations depended on, even though modern times call for modern responses.

The combination of myth over reality, rear-view attempts at problem-solving, and the barren debate it produced, was threatening a crisis in governance, in the public's confidence in government -- yet another harbinger of things to come -- early slips on the long sick slide toward our thoroughly dumbed down politics of today.

Hear the echos of his voice in your head as you read this...

For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived and dishonest -- but the myth -- persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often, we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. Mythology distracts us everywhere -- in government as in business, in politics as in economics, in foreign affairs as in domestic affairs.

Wow. Aside from the undeniable merit of his views, consider the actual language used. Serious. Intelligent. Thought-provoking. Wouldn't it be something if a sizable number of our politicians would actually talk like that today? Imagine how different the national debate might be.

But that would require leadership.

I often write about the vital but missing role of the citizen in our democracy. How most of us have slacked off in our jobs as citizens, and how that contributes to the dysfunction of our political system. But there is an irreplaceable role for leaders as well.

Real leaders -- who, you know, lead. Not who simply win 51 percent in a vainglorious popularity contest, and then self-aggrandizingly call themselves a leader when all they really are is somebody who won an election by spending a gazillion dollars to play manipulative mind games with slick TV spots, and regurgitating meaningless soundbites as their only form of intellectual argument. But, hey, the free candy they offer is kinda cool, so what the hell.

In a truly healthy democracy, ordinary citizens would inoculate themselves from the virus of spin by staying informed about the issues, and taking a hands-on role in political problem-solving -- instead of hoping against hope that the next political superhero will really be The One. But like most of us, I also admire and crave authentic leaders, as they are critically needed. But they exist today only as echos of a bygone era.

Leaders earn and therefore deserve our respect. Politicians who win elections by any means necessary deserve nothing but our scrutiny -- before, during, and after elections.

So on this big anniversary of the signing of America's founding document, written by courageous and astonishingly wise men -- leaders one and all -- who debated and persuaded, compromised and composed their agreement in a way that articulated transcendent ideas about self-governance in an elegant yet remarkably concise way -- we're reminded of how much words matter -- especially when they come out of the mouths of our would-be leaders.

Or at least we should be.

Given the political climate in America today, and the profound detachment of The People from our once-representative government, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the big 225 sails silently by us, as we search for distraction on our various screens, wondering what's coming next while failing to remember why we're so damn lucky to live in this country.

And the reverb will ripple on.