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Howard Gardner
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Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

Making a Virtue of Necessity

There was a time, not so long ago, when an individual's personal life was considered "off limits" for speeches and press coverage. Early in the 20th century, U.S. presidents had largely a public rather than a private persona and leaders like Charles de Gaulle made a point of appearing only as a public figure.

There is something to be said for such "walls." There are plenty of examples of leaders whose personal life and history was unexceptionable but whose public record was disastrous, even more examples of leaders who were impressive, despite many blemishes in their personal histories.

In the era of 24/7 press coverage, internet, blogging, etc., that time is past, probably forever. We even know of the foibles of the sons of Kim Jong-Il! So making a virtue of necessity, leaders are expected to draw on their personal histories, even as their supporters and their opponents will do likewise.

For such individuals under public scrutiny my suggestions are:

l. Be honest and straightforward. Don't embellish or hide: You'll be found out and lack of integrity will be added to your list of demerits.

2. Draw on your personal history when appropriate. Don't wallow in it unnecessarily or fail to bring it up when it is clearly relevant.

3. Embody your history in the way that you live, behave, talk, and lead. There should be a seamless connection between the story you share with the public, and the life that you lead.

No doubt part of Barack Obama's appeal is that he clearly represents the culmination of his life experiences and is not afraid to say so and to draw upon that history as appropriate. Because George W. Bush's personal history was far less admirable, he had to allude to it (drinking, aimlessness) without being straightforward about it. John McCain's personal history was more impressive when he let others speak about it, and only alluded to it himself tangentially.

Which brings me to the issue of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Inevitably, in this media climate, and given the importance of the position for which she has been nominated, her personal history will come up. It is telling that the personal histories prove more salient in the case of women and minorities than in the case of white males, where (as with Justices Roberts and Alito or with Bush vs. Kerry or Bush vs. Gore) it should be equally relevant.

And of course Judge Sotomayor has stirred the pot because of her one ethnically tinged comment about a wise female Hispanic judge. It should be up to Judge Sotomayor to show that, despite the facts of her personal life, she is able to act in a disinterested (i.e. non-biased) manner across a range of cases. And that is because the requirements for a judge are different than the requirements for many other positions: A judge should be prepared to uphold the law and legal precedent, even if it goes against her personal predilections and the facts of her own history. Empathy is fine but it cannot trump an even handed application of the law.

It remains unfair that a woman, or a member of a religious or ethnic minority, or a gay person, should have to make more of a personal case than a member of the until-now majority WASP background. I look toward a day when any individual in the public eye should be able to draw on personal history and should be expected to show where it is relevant and where it must be put into brackets. Paradoxically, the election of Barack Obama and the nomination of Judge Sotomayor should move us closer to that date. The best evidence of this is the fact that few care today that the Supreme Court has five Catholic and two Jewish Justices.

By Howard Gardner

 |  June 8, 2009; 10:29 AM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: We Need Life Stories | Next: A Judge's Special Obligation

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I disagree that the personal stories of women and minorities are more compelling. Former President Bill Clinton and Federal Reserve Chairman Benjamin Bernanke have very compelling personal stories because they are leaders who rose from the midst of common folk. Americans want someone who is smart, is successful and who knows what is like to live in oridinary circumstances. Hence the success and/or fond remembrances of Presidents like Truman, Reagan and Clinton.

Once everyone calms down I think that we will see that we have made a mountain out of a mole hill. For more than 175 years the Supreme Court was the exclusive domain of white males and no one dared to question this until Thurgood Marshall. Almost 200 years passed before Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman to sit on the Court. BTW if you consider the credentials of Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Ginsberg and the current nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, you will see that they stack up very favorably and often exceed that of their male counterparts (past and present) on the Court.

Posted by: aaron20 | June 8, 2009 1:30 PM
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