Since Bill Clinton’s win over George H.W. Bush, I’ve held the opinion that what we need is less “inspiration” and better management. Not sexy, of course, but when you consider the enormous complexity of our institutions and the tangled interconnections with the world, it should be obvious that someone whose chief virtue is a Chautauqua Meeting ability to command attention and inflame an audience into tongue-speaking, emotion-laden excitement is not likely to either care or understand the true requirements of the job of president.
Usually, such abilities are at least understandable in a wartime leader. Rallying the troops, so to speak. But then, after the speeches, the hard work of actually running things must happen, and that requires a different set of skills, many of which are far from inspiring other than in the abstract. (Consider, most successful military actions have always depended more on logistics than on tactics and the guy leading the charge. But we rarely pin medals on the supply officers.)
Eisenhower understood this. He was not a frontline commander, but he understood people, and knew how to organize, and could prioritize necessities. He was not a particularly inspiring speaker, but he was solid, dependable, even if most people didn’t quite know why. (His last speech as president addresses a technical issue which probably most people simply didn’t get—the military-industrial complex is an abstract concept about systems. He understood perfectly, though, how systems and institutions can develop enormous momentum and end up running us over, all because we ignore them because they seem so impersonal. He warned us about it and while some knew very well what he meant, we were never able to activate the political will to counteract it—because we tend not to vote for that sort of representative. We’re too hooked on Being Inspired.)
With the smoking ruin of Vietnam and the civil unrest that accompanied it, we began relying more and more on “inspiring” candidates. By the time Clinton came along, it seemed obvious that we had been running the country on a war footing practically since the end of WWII, and it was beginning to show signs of unendurable stress. We needed to slow down, so to speak, stop fighting a war we were increasingly complicit in fueling for the benefit of an economy that was also clearly serving fewer and fewer people the way it ought to. The loudest voice extolling the most patriotic qualities in opposition to one existential threat after another in order to save the country from the shame and wreckage of movements no one really understood well enough to honestly oppose kept winning elections and overbalancing our institutions in favor of more extreme versions of an America Triumphant became the accepted standard of candidates.
When what we really needed was a good manager, not a General on a stallion leading a charge.
This trend gave us the last administration, which was almost all bombast and bluster and inspirational excess (for some, at least) and almost no actual management.
For years, I’ve been saying that I no longer care to be inspired. I want a competent person who will manage things. We needed that when Clinton won. We got some of it, but he was hampered by the jingoistic hunger to be A LEADER.
Well, fingers crossed, we may finally have what we need. According to this editorial in the New York Intelligencer, Joe Biden may have learned something from the last 40 years and has the presence of mind to act on what he’s learned.
We’ll see. It may fail, but I think this approach deserves a chance. Because the other way, the mindless, adrenalin-driven screaming of hordes of followers behind that Leader On A Charger leading us toward the next hill has been tearing us apart.
Besides, the next hill may well be a cliff.