On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Mickey Edwards
Political leader

Mickey Edwards

Former U.S. Congressman, Mickey Edwards is vice president of the Aspen Institute, where he directs the Institute's Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership.

Piles of Pygmies

"Where are the new giants?" It's a fascinating question with a lot of interesting subtexts. I'm going content myself with raising some questions rather than attempting an answer since who is, or is not, a giant depends in large part on the lens of the viewer.

First we need to define "giant." Here the media does play a role in the determination because who is or is not perceived as a giant may well depend on whether or not a public figure is seen as championing a cause that influential journalists support or find important. In the latter category -- champions of issues journalists recognize as important -- I think of somebody like Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Byrd, before his health failed, was a very important public figure (in a vote of their peers, Byrd defeated Kennedy for a leadership position in the Senate). Few people in public life have been as fierce in their defense of something that is far more transcendent in importance than any single issue Senator Kennedy championed -- the United States Constitution. True, Byrd's fingerprints are found on fewer public laws than Kennedy's; he was clearly less a central figure in the advocacy or shaping of legislation. But if playing a major role in passing new laws is the defining characteristic of a "giant," does that disqualify legislators dedicated to keeping the scope and size of government within more circumscribed limits? Where does "success" fit into the definition? If one pursues a quest -- to enlarge government or prevent its enlargement -- does being a giant require success in that quest? Does one have to be in tune with the tenor of the moment or can one be a giant by standing against the tide?

One other thought: It is possible that the democratization of the political process, the increased media scrutiny of public figures, and the increased attention paid to the presidency all work against the rise of giants within the legislative world. With relatively few exceptions (Taft? Moynihan? LBJ? Rayburn? O'Neill? Dingell?) those people we think of as political giants within the legislative branch are men who predated the popular election of senators. With modern campaigns focused on sound bites and on "debates" that are really nothing more than joint interviews in which candidates are required to keep their responses brief, it is hard for men or women of intellect and nuance to be elected.

Barack Obama did it in election to the Senate from Illinois, but against very weak opposition both in the Democratic primary and in the general election. Senator Kennedy had the good fortune to run in a state that was overwhelmingly Democratic and had continued, since President Kennedy's assassination, to hold special reverence for the Kennedy name. Senator Kennedy took full advantage of that benefit to shape a momentous career but if the circumstances had been different -- if he were from another state and with another name -- perhaps he would not have had that opportunity.

Finally, in an age when the pendulum seems to have swung from Edmund Burke's desire for a "trustee" model of public service to a greater desire for legislators who primarily reflect the public will of the moment, one wonders whether the public really wants giants or whether it prefers mirrors.

Being a former legislator, I have naturally focused on that arena, but perhaps more important is the response from my friend and colleague, Jim Spiegelman, who wonders whether in other fields as well -- Hollywood, Sports -- "over-exposure inevitably makes those in the spotlight smaller." Which makes me wonder whether the giants are just harder to see, covered up as they are by piles of pygmies.

By Mickey Edwards

 |  August 31, 2009; 8:25 PM ET
Category:  Politics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: They Might Be Giants | Next: A New Generation


Please report offensive comments below.

is this article a joke? really who in their right mind would even fashion statements like this?

children do not even think like this.

what is the aspen institute anyway? are they an american outfit?

Posted by: JohnAdams1 | September 2, 2009 2:48 AM
Report Offensive Comment

It seems that Mr. Edwards is advocating a more modest definition of giant? Wouldn't a giant be someone who is beyond the modest ... the politician, if we are speaking of political giants, who leads us to "the light" as opposed to the politician who more often than not reflects the worst that we are, even if whatever that particular position is happens to be the most popular of the moment? Isn't it the visionary "giant" who withstands the judgment of time?

Posted by: littleoldlady | September 1, 2009 9:15 AM
Report Offensive Comment

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company