THE BLOG
11/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Difference Between A Functional Leader And A Fictional One

As an author, one thing I've learned through the years is the power of language and word-choice in driving a narrative. I once spent eight hours on one paragraph, only to have an editor draw a line through it on the manuscript and scrawl, "Is this necessary?"

I erased her line and wrote above her marginal note: "Yes. It is necessary."

When you earn your living through the business of words, you become hyper-aware of words in our public discourse, and particularly in an increasingly lazy mainstream media, which tends to repeat the same words to describe an ongoing current event or public person.

For seven years now, I have sat through reading and listening to descriptive accounts of our current commander-in-chief of two wars as, "resolute."

Never once, in a mainstream source, have I heard him called, "stubborn."

My online Thesaurus, lists such synonyms for "resolute" as: "adamant, ardent, determined, faithful, loyal, stalwart...unflinching."

These are all POSITIVE connotations of the president's behavior conducting war in Afghanistan and in Iraq that go along with that one, simple word-choice of "resolute."

But synonyms for "stubborn" include: "brassbound, grim, implacable, inflexible...remorseless."

Which do you think best describes our president's attitude?

Similarly, when it comes to Sen. John McCain and the breathless decisions he makes, I keep reading and hearing that he is, "bold."

Only rarely do you ever hear the term, "reckless" applied to those same decisions.

In the Thesaurus, words for "bold" include: "adventurous, assured, audacious, confident, courageous, daring...dashing...spunky..." Well, you get the picture.

But look up "reckless" and you read: "dangerous, dare-devil, feckless, foolhardy, irresponsible...unheeding."

Which do you think best describes McCain?

When it comes to the descriptions of Sen. Barack Obama, time and time again, I read the following words: "passive, aloof, too cool, reserved, standoffish," and even, "cold."

You don't need a Thesaurus to understand the narrative that has been taking shape to describe the Democratic nominee. Even the more flattering term, "measured," in the Thesaurus, is described as "calculated...restrained...careful...timed"--none of which sounds like a particularly good thing, when you think about it.

Why is this?

I think it is because, in our celebrity-driven, American-Idolized culture, we have somehow gotten true, honest characteristics of leadership confused with fictional ones.

In other words, we think a combat-soldier archetype ought to be John Wayne, not Colin Powell, who not only WAS a real-life decorated combat soldier, but actually advised AGAINST the war in Iraq (before being fed bogus information to present to the U.N. that forever damaged his career-long reputation for honor and dignity).

Back when Bush was swaggering around, mouthing about catching Bin Laden "dead or alive" and challenging the Iraqi insurgents to "bring it on" because our troops--and by extension, we, ourselves--were tough enough to take it--the general consensus at the time was one of collective delight. There were enough Americans out there who loved his cowboy act to vote him into office twice, much to the complete dismay of the rest of us and the remainder of the world community.

Bush in the rubble with the megaphone, Bush strutting across the aircraft carrier deck in his flight suit--these were all media-driven images that fed into the fictional narrative of what constitutes not just a leader, but a hero.

We know now, of course, how the narrative itself was a lie, concocted and fed to the media by a White House that was spookily savvy in the art of selling snake-oil.

I see this taking shape all over again in the McCain Mythology, that the war-hero who withstood torture somehow can do no wrong when aspiring to the leadership of our country. Choosing a woman who is pitifully unprepared to serve as vice-president is described, time and again, as a "bold" decision, not a "reckless" one.

And we like our leaders bold, swaggering, strutting...as opposed to, say...passive, aloof, restrained.

Don't we?

In my previous post, "What Sen. McCain Doesn't Seem to Understand," I was gratified by some of the most eloquent and articulate comments I have ever read on any blogpost, much less one of mine, and most of them were left by active-duty and retired military and their families.

One commenter, "Liberoservative," really made me sit up and think:

"I am active duty and soon to be a veteran...after 20 years of service.
"I support Obama completely because, as an officer, I know what Leadership looks like.....
"Leadership is exhibited when you have a Vision and a Mission.
"Leadership is exhibited when you care more for your troops than for yourself.
"Leadership is exhibited when you can take the opinions of those who disagree with you or have a different opinion and either agree with them or incorporate what they say by modifying your own opinion because what they had to say had relevance to your overall goal....
"Leadership is being able to inspire your troops to perform beyond what they thought they were capable of......

"Senator Obama exhibits all of these.... and if you want to know what a leader really does.. look at what Colin Powell's definition of leadership is...."

Liberoservative's comment rang true with me not just because it was based on his and others' proven experience with true leadership, but because it valued the FUNCTIONAL aspect of leadership over the FICTIONAL.

In the light of McCain's own recent actions, it has still been very hard for a media in the lingering throes of a man-crush for the war-hero, to let go of their own cherished narrative of what constitutes leadership.

It has been said that sometimes celebrities get to reading their own press releases too much, and they start believing their own hype. (I once heard Sylvester Stallone comment that this was one of the reasons his first marriage broke up.) They lose sight of who they really are in their souls and begin to act out in ways they think the public expects them to.

McCain's been spinning his own story for so long that he often confuses "taking action" and "being bold" with demonstrations of true leadership.

In other words, he chooses the theatrical, dramatic, B-roll-stealing, narrative-shaping action because he thinks it makes him "look presidential."

Shutting down the Republican convention so he could go make a stand down on the Gulf when Hurricane Ike loomed. Dispatching Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham to Georgia after making a swooning statement that, "We are all Georgians now," much to the horror and disgust of the Russians and barely-disguised glee of the Georgians. Demanding that the chairman of the Securities and Exchange commission be fired, and then "suspending" his campaign so he could "focus on the financial crises." Ducking out on David Letterman one hour before air-time so he could "fly back to Washington" to deal with it (then staying in New York to continue campaigning). Setting up the photo-op meeting with Bush and Obama and party leaders at the White House in order to stage a dramatic walk-out on the deal that had been hammered out over days and nights by exhausted senators and others.

These are all the actions of a man who believes that the American people measure leadership by the fictional John Wayne narrative that "bold action"--ANY action--is preferable over careful consideration, restraint, and diplomacy.

To that end, he has turned over management of his campaign to the same packagers who marketed the whole president-in-flight-suit campaign-commercial image in the first place.

After all, it worked then.

And McCain is certain it will work now because, hey, he really IS a war-hero, not some National Guard wimp whose daddy bought his way out of the war.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the soft-focus lens and soaring background music.

It's called, "reality." ("existence, fact, substance, truth.")

Media movie-narratives and rescue fantasies only work in the public imagination as long as they can be sustained with a healthy dose of denial and almost criminal negligence. The public was asked to go shopping while 5,000 American men and women died in pools of blood overseas, and they could do this because, without a national draft to threaten their own families, they could deny that any sort of real sacrifice was taking place.

Even the cost of the war was hidden, taken out of the government's budget, stuck into "emergency appropriations" that amounted to massive credit-card charges on the Bank of China. After all, when you haul out the plastic at the check-out, you don't really have to think about the fact that you are actually taking out a bank-loan, because it doesn't FEEL that way. You don't have to think about it at all, in fact, until the bill comes due.

The slow-motion train wreck that has been this administration's Reagan-era economy has taken place in statistical increments, bit by bit, factory closing by factory closing, foreclosure sign by foreclosure sign, credit card-default by credit-card default...drip, drip, drip...until suddenly the levees gave way and the entire country awoke in four feet of rapidly rising water and stinking swill.

Suddenly, we're seeing new descriptive words applied to McCain's tactics, like, "risky" ("dangerous, hazardous, perilous, unsafe, unstable"):

"WASHINGTON -- The house always wins, gamblers are warned, and the U.S. House made John McCain pay Monday for his politically risky, high-profile involvement in a financial rescue plan that came crashing down, mainly at the hands of his fellow Republicans."
--Analysis: "House vote against bailout wounds McCain," Charles Babington, Associated Press, in the Washington Post, September 30, 2008

--and his matinee-idol impression of leadership is undergoing a much closer look:

"As a study in his prospective leadership, the role of Mr. McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, has done him no political good. After suspending his campaign last week and vowing to work with Republicans until a resolution was in hand, Mr. McCain was campaigning in Ohio on Monday with his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, as the House vote commenced. There he implicitly took credit for the compromise bailout that Congressional leaders had negotiated over the weekend, even as it was going down to defeat."
--News Analysis: "In Bailout Vote, a Leadership Breakdown," Jackie Calmes, New York Times, September 30, 2008

"Yet even as he huffed and puffed about being a 'leader,' McCain took no action and felt no urgency. As his Congressional colleagues worked tirelessly in Washington, he malingered in New York. He checked out the suffering on Main Street (or perhaps High Street) by conferring with Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, the Hillary-turned-McCain supporter best known for her fabulous London digs and her diatribes against Obama's elitism. McCain also found time to have a well-publicized chat with one of those celebrities he so disdains, Bono, and to give a self-promoting public speech at the Clinton Global Initiative."
--"McCain"s Suspension Bridge to Nowhere," Frank Rich, New York Times, September 28, 2008

"McCain, who told the Wall Street Journal in March that 'I'm always for less regulation,' now asks voters to believe he will be a champion of tough, unblinking oversight. He's shocked and outraged that Wall Street's preening Masters of the Universe threw a drunken toga party and smashed all the furniture -- but he helped buy the beer and told the cops to look the other way."
--"Flunking Economics," Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, September 19, 2008

And I'm not even going to bother linking to all the conservative columnists I've read in recent days, such as George Will, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker, and so on, who have questioned not only McCain's nuttiness in dealing with this most recent crises, but in his crap-shoot choice of vice-president.

Because even though Sarah Palin fit ever-so-neatly into a fictional media mythological narrative about being the spunky hockey mom just like you n'me who went on to be the heroic governor of a rugged and exciting state like Alaska...the REALITY of a Sarah Palin potential presidency in light of the current crises is sobering indeed, even for the usual spin-meisters.

It's a funny thing about real life as opposed to fiction, and real leaders as opposed to fake ones.

Real life can hurt real people.

With fiction, you can escape into the story and live vicariously through the made-up hero and heroine and go on to defeat Voldemort or charge off into the sunset with Indy Jones. The heroes never get hurt all that badly, and you never get hurt at all.

But with real life, there is no escape.

And when the shoppers and American-Idol voters get yanked into sudden, harsh reality, then another funny thing happens.

Turns out they want a REAL leader. Not the kind you can manufacture with "golden hour" lighting onboard a ship or in dramatic White House meetings.

And just as suddenly, the narrative on Barack Obama has become, "calm in crises" ("peaceful, serene, not emotionally agitated"), and he has "taken charge":

"WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama's calmly assured response to the economic crisis and solid debate performance have bolstered the view among voters that he is ready to be chief executive, a crucial threshold he needs to cross to win the presidency.

"The improved standing for Obama, a candidate still not well-known, was captured by polling this weekend...

"Within an hour of the House defeating the bill, Obama sought to calm fears by saying: 'I'm confident we're going to get there, but it's going to be rocky.'

"...After Bush summoned him to Washington, Obama was credited as the candidate who took charge inside the Cabinet Room.

"He suggested McCain's return had muddied negotiations.

'''It's important not to inject presidential politics into this,' Obama said afterward and added: 'It's amazing what you can get done when you're not looking to try to get credit for it.'''
--Associated Press, September 29, 2008

Now, we see the word "thoughtful" to describe Obama, ("absorbed, careful, contemplative, sensible, wise") and "cerebral" ("sophisticated, thoughtful, intelligent"):

"'After eight years of Bush's cavalier attitude toward serious and complex problems, people are in the market for a more thoughtful approach,' said Doug Hattaway, a Democratic communications consultant who was a spokesman on Senator Clinton's campaign. 'That's usually dangerous for a politician trying to get elected in a 'just do it' culture. But the time seems to be right for Obama's more cerebral style.'"
--"On Bailout, Candidates Were Surely Themselves," Patrick Healy, New York Times, September 29, 2008

And now, the word "cool" takes on new meaning ("calm, collected, composed, even-tempered"):

"Throughout the week, Obama cast himself as the responsible stakeholder and party leader, communicating with White House and Democratic leaders as he tried to influence the outcome of the bailout talks behind the scenes. He made no sudden or dramatic public moves. He slipped the trap his advisers believe McCain tried to set for him by proposing a delay in the debate -- and simultaneously avoided tying himself inextricably to a bailout proposal that, even if it passes, may remain extremely unpopular.

"...Obama's cool-under-pressure approach became a selling point for Democrats.

"...'Obama on the phone this week sounded like a president should: asking the right questions, being substantive, not looking for an immediate political benefit,' said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who fielded two or three calls from the Illinois Democrat during the course of the negotiations.

"'Certainly the economy is the high ground for Obama, and McCain has made it only more so,' Schumer said. 'I think this past week could end up being a turning point for the presidential race.'"
--"For Obama, Dialogue Drove Week's Work," Anne E. Kornblut, Washington Post, September 28, 2008

And yet, old mythological archetypes die out slowly, if this week's Newsweek cover story, "The Vices of Their Virtues," by Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas, is any indication.

After going through the same old "bold" terminology for McCain, who they say, "makes no apologies," for his apparent boldness, they use the term "passivity" for Obama, saying he's "more bystander than player."

Their final paragraph uses that same tired over-used metaphor--quoted by Harold Ford, Jr., no less--that "voters want a daddy and not a mama," blah blah blah.

But many voters, including the Democratic nominee, were raised by smart, tough, determined single mothers and/or grandmothers, and what they're looking for right now is not a mama OR a daddy.

What they want is a LEADER.

Here is one way Gen. Colin Powell described true leadership:

"'Powell's Rules for Picking People'--Look for intelligence and judgment and, most critically, a capacity to anticipate, to see around corners. Also, look for loyalty, integrity, a high energy drive, a balanced ego and the drive to get things done."
--"A Leadership Primer," by Oren Harari, GovLeaders.org

Many of the articles I have read mention that John McCain loves to compare himself to Teddy Roosevelt. (as if) But as Jonathan Alter points out in that same Newsweek, maybe the president he should be paying more attention to is FRANKLIN Roosevelt.

Alter mentions that he's been told, by sources too timid to identify themselves, that Treasury Secretary Paulson finds Obama "much more impressive" than McCain, and that Paul Volker and Warren Buffett are both Obama supporters.

It's not just about economic acumen. As David Brooks, conservative columnist for the New York Times points out in his op-ed, "Revolt of the Nihilists":

"In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt inherited an economic crisis. He understood that his first job was to restore confidence, to give people a sense that somebody was in charge, that something was going to be done.

"This generation of political leaders" (referring to the House of Representatives) "is confronting a similar situation, and, so far, they have failed utterly and catastrophically to project any sense of authority, to give the world any reason to believe that this country is being governed. Instead, by rejecting the rescue package on Monday, they have made the psychological climate much worse.

"George W. Bush is completely out of juice, having squandered his influence with Republicans as well as Democrats. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is a smart moneyman, but an inept legislator. He was told time and time again that House Republicans would not support his bill, and his response was to get down on bended knee before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi."

"...House Republicans led the way and will get most of the blame...(as again) they listened to the loudest and angriest voices in their party, oblivious to the complicated anxieties that lurk in most American minds.

"Now they have once again confused talk radio with reality."

If the poll numbers are any indication at all, the American people have woken up from a long hypnotic spell cast upon them by the current occupants of the White House. They are blearily blinking around themselves and seeing the wreckage wrought by eight years of Republican/Bush/McCain policies.

They've been watching the John McCain Hero-Rescuer-Cute-Girl-Sidekick movie that's been played out on their televisions this past couple of weeks, and they are not amused.

They feel sick and frightened and confused, and they want someone who can reassure them, not only that everything is going to be all right, but that a calm, sure, steady hand is on the Ship of State, quietly steering her past the hidden icebergs.

The Bush administration has lurched from crises to catastrophe for nearly a decade now--seemingly caught by surprise by every development, from 9-11 to Katrina to this latest disaster. Meanwhile, captainless, Congress has degenerated into a rudderless mutiny of blamers and squabblers and accusers while the country has gone adrift in the deadly doldrums.

One reason Bush has been so ineffective as a true leader is that he is no more captain of that ship than the figurehead carved into the ship's bow. It may be the first thing you see when the ship comes into view, but it has nothing to do with sailing it.

The American passengers on that ship have learned the hard way that real-life leaders don't invent photo-op heroics to prove they're on the job. True leaders are too busy, behind the scenes, working to solve the problems, and when they do step forward, it is to let the American people know that the ship's course is true, because real leaders are far more concerned with the people they lead than with themselves.

There is much that I am sure Barack Obama would like to say and do right now, but he can't because he is not yet president and it is not yet his job. But what he has done is give us all a glimpse of what a real leader looks like, at a time when it sometimes appears this storm-tossed ship is going down.

The seriousness of our situation has forced the media narrative to reflect reality for the first time, maybe, in a decade or more. The language of leadership is changing in a way that expresses that.

This is a moment in our history that will tell the true tale of our national character. Will we continue to indulge our weakness for mythology, or will we step up to who we really are as a people? We are made of much sterner stuff than it has seemed in recent years. Our politics has been dominated by the silly and the surreal, but those days are over.

That is not, as Obama says, who we are.

We are still the same people who struggled to settle a brutal new land, who fought against an occupying army for our independence, who bled and died to preserve the union and end slavery, who rode to the rescue of our allies in two terrible world wars, and who led the world in space-age innovation and crackling creativity.

We don't need fake heroes anymore. We are our own heroes. We've had enough drama and theatrics, and we know it. We're ready for a real leader, and we're ready to do our part to help save ourselves.

That is who we are. Not who the myth-makers pretend we are.