Question: Will President Obama and Democrats pay a price for their success in passing landmark health care legislation? How often does success prove hazardous to people's careers or backfire in unexpected ways?
Answer: Great public leaders are willing to risk everything --- even re-election --- to achieve the right results for the public good. Without leaders willing to take dramatic personal risks, this nation would never have won the Revolution, ended slavery, survived the Civil War, rebuilt the economy after the Depression, passed Social Security, ended World War II, enacted great Civil Rights laws, protected women's rights.
Americans are often agnostic about their own history. We think that bitter political battles and mud-slinging journalism are a recent phenomenon. The Tea Party in Boston Harbor was not the only inspiration for today's political scrum. In fact, the revered Founding Fathers were a Brawling Bunch for many years, radically opposed to each others' ideas as this fledgling nation tried to find its way from living with monarchy to establishing a true democracy. John Adams flirted with monarchial tendencies; Thomas Jefferson famously fought with his friend over titles and presidential prerogatives.
Abraham Lincoln agonized over the likely consequences of Emancipation. He paid with his life at the hands of the confederate John Wilkes Booth, whose hatred for Lincoln should be a cautionary tale for presidential protectors today.
Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most extraordinary public leaders in U.S. History, heralded the modern era through promoting legislation on everything from trust-busting to creating national parks. He did not seem overly concerned with opposition, trusting his own sense of the rightness of the causes he espoused. He was very successful, until the day his own party threw him out because he had become too progressive.
Lyndon Johnson would never have been mistaken for a civil rights leader prior to becoming president of the United States, but his astute understanding of the moral rightness of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 led him to persist in the enactment of that legislation despite terrible threats. His presidency foundered, ironically, not on his civil rights leadership but on the war in Vietnam that he inherited from President Kennedy, whose role in the early days of the Vietnam era is rarely mentioned.
Richard Nixon was a surprisingly successful president in unexpected ways, perhaps most notably, opening dialogue with China. Here was the old communist-baiter walking atop the Great Wall and chatting with Mao. This was revolutionary! Nixon's downfall was not because he took such a great risk with China, but rather, because he could not resist his own petty demons when it came to third rate politics.
While it's true that these and other politicians of previous eras did not have to contend with the virulence of blogs and the 24/7 news cycle, in fact, their examples of success and failure can continue to be highly instructive for today's leaders.
The majority of citizens are actually sane people who appreciate effective and honest leadership. That same majority --- and I'm quite confident it's a large majority --- abhor the "wingnuts" who are trying to dominate the airwaves as if they speak for everyone. Unfortunately, extremist positions get a great deal of media attention because they are so entertaining, while a middle-of-the-road discussion is pretty boring in television terms.
Successful leaders --- whether politicians or corporate officials or college presidents --- know that, sometimes, the very action that will create long-term success creates a lot of short-term noise. I have a saying: if I don't hear any noise, I'm not doing my job.
Leaders can't be afraid of noise. Nor can leaders confuse popularity with success. A political leader who gets re-elected term after term without any legacy of genuinely effective laws for the public good is not a success --- he is a squatter in a seat that should be relinquished to someone willing to take the risk of action.
The ultimate measure of success is the result of action, not merely the ability to hold on for dear life.
Posted by: american17 | March 24, 2010 9:42 AM
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