UNCOMMON WRITING - UNCOMMON ADVERTISING - UNCOMMON IDEAS
This is one of eight political newsletters I wrote for Knowledge Products in Nashville in 1991-1992. I was charged with the task of presenting both sides of the issues - Left and Right - persuasively, while entertaining the company’s many customers across the United States. The literary device I employed was a dialogue between two ethereal characters straight out of the classic Greek Platonic tradition--Cromethius and Rene. Looking back on these newsletters I am pleased to find that they have not become dated. They are still relevant.
NOW & then Issue 4
In their new bestseller, The Day America Told the Truth, two advertising executives expose prevailing American attitudes about a variety of subjects. Among their findings: "America has no leaders and, especially, no moral leadership. Americans believe, across the board, that our current political, religious, and business leaders have failed us miserably and completely."
What has happened to our country? Where have all the Great Leaders gone?
That's the central issue in this fourth edition of Now & then. Perhaps the Great Leaders never disappeared at all. Perhaps they never existed. In the passage of history, reputations assume mythic proportions. We see George Washington crossing the Delaware. We see him wrapped in glowing robes, worshipful cherubs at his head. We see him with ax in hand, standing by his Daddy's fabled cherry tree. But we never see plain George.
Would our perception change if we knew the man himself? In George Washington's case, probably not much. He was revered in his own time, as well. Yet even ole George had his flings.
Until recently, reporters generally protected politicians' private lives. The press was aware of Kennedy's countless White House playmates. It knew of Eisenhower's wartime girlfriend, Kay Summersby. It was a constant witness to LBJ's crude and flagrant sexism. It reported practically none of that during those presidents' lifetimes. Later, it made little difference; many people still regard Kennedy as one of our greatest presidents, moral character notwithstanding.
Then came Watergate and the cat was out of the bag. Suddenly scandal was the order of the day, with a slathering press reporting every sleazy detail. Today, despite unprecedented anti-corruption legislation and regulation, the scandals continue at a pace that would shock Machiavelli himself.
It's not just amoral politicians, either. Now we have drug-addicted sports heroes, sexaholic preachers, and wholesale white-collar robbery. Americans are no longer shocked. They're simply disgusted. Or they just don’t care anymore.
Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Machiavelli ad others examined the moral dimensions of leadership. We at Knowledge Products believe that their great ideas are still relevant...that ideas still possess the power to illuminate and guide us. We like to think that every politician who runs for public office is firmly grounded in those ideas. John Lennon imagined all the people "living life in peace." There's as much hope for one as the other.
IS THERE A STATESMAN IN THE HOUSE?
Cromethius sits in a rich leather chair in the Academy Library, leafing through a book with a modest title: Great American Leaders. Other students are arrayed throughout the cavernous room, among them Cromethius' dearest friend and intellectual adversary, Rene.
Suddenly Cromethius shatters the hush. "He couldn't keep his pants on!" he exclaims loudly. "He didn't write Profiles in Courage. He was the only naval commander lax enough to let a destroyer ram his PT-Boat. He never held a regular job in his life. His daddy practically bought him the presidency. He was a waste in the Senate. He botched the Bay of Pigs. And now they call him one of the greatest presidents in history. Ridiculous!"
"SHHHHH!" The whole room glares at Cromethius. Muttering, he continues to flip through the book.
Rene slides into the seat next to Cromethius and whispers, "He instructed young enlisted men to engage in homosexual acts to expose a homosexual ring at the naval training station. He had an affair with his secretary. He—"
"Who?" Cromethius interrupts.
"Franklin D. Roosevelt."
Roosevelt made big government a way of life, and for that, we should all be sorry," Cromethius says, "but I've always respected him. He was America's last great statesman. Why don't you just disillusion me entirely, Rene, and tell me that Santa Claus is a communist?"
"SHHHHH!" The room glares again. The persnickety old librarian peers at the pair disapprovingly. "Check that book out. Let's go," Rene says, "before they throw us out"
Minutes later they rest under a magnificent elm on the Academy Triangle. Cromethius looks through his book.
"George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln—great statesmen all. Why have we no statesmen today, Rene?"
"Because we have television," Rene answers.
"Is that all?" Cromethius wonders. "Is television all that stands between Ted Kennedy and statesmanship?"
"Maybe," Rene answers. "It's more than that, though. It's the entire press. It's this huge, unforgiving microscope we focus on our leaders today. No one can stand up to that kind of scrutiny."
"Shall we turn the microscope off, Rene? Turn a blind eye on unacceptable behavior?"
"No, Cromethius, but I suggest that your great statesmen were no angels, either. Alexander Hamilton had an affair with a Philadelphia woman named Maria Reynolds, who turned out to be—along with her husband—a blackmailer. He paid them for two years to keep the relationship quiet."
"What happened then?" "Hamilton got fed up and stopped paying. Reynolds spilled the beans to his political rivals. They questioned Hamilton and decided the situation hadn't affected Hamilton's performance in office. He went on to become a 'statesman.’"
"Well, after all, it was only an affair," Cromethius says.
"You're quite forgiving with your heroes.” Rene retorts with a contemptuous snort.
"Kennedy's affairs were different. He was reckless." Cromethius replies. "A suspected Nazi agent. A mafia boss's girlfriend. A movie star."
Rene dismisses the indictment with a wave of his hand. "While Jefferson was President, an opposition journalist reported that he had seduced two married women, one of them the wife of a close friend. Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel, was accused of being a bigamist."
Cromethius groans. "Stop! You're killing me!" he says.
"Hey, it's not just sex. It's the S&L thing, Abscam, skipping tabs and bouncing checks, Watergate, PACs, Koreagate, the Iran-Contra Affair, BCCI...the American people are fed up." "As they have a right to be," Rene agrees.
"I'm simply pointing out that political scandal is nothing new. It's television that's changed things. There's no lack of potential leaders in Washington, we just know them too well. The great-leader image depends on distance, mystery and careful management of public impressions. In the early days, if a speech bombed, no one would know but the few who were there. Now, politicians are right in voters' faces, warts and all, ready or not. The media exposes everything. The public barely realized that Franklin Roosevelt was badly disabled. Very few ever heard Thomas Jefferson's slight speech impediment."
“Those men had substance, though," Cromethius says, "they took a stand. They were statesmen because they stood for something in government, for better or worse, and everybody knew what that was. You can't tell what a politician stands for anymore. Bush said 'Read my lips—no new taxes.' A statesman would have stood on that. Bush caved in."
"Maybe he studied Machiavelli," Rene says. "There's a difference between political expediency and political cowardice, just as there's a difference between yesterday's statesmen and today's politicians. I'll tell you what it is: A statesman is nothing but a dead politician."
"You're wrong, Rene. In 1790, there were only 250,000 people eligible to hold high office in America, and from that small number came dozens of talented statesmen. Today we're lucky to find just one appropriate new Justice for the Supreme Court."
"Now there's one place where you still find Platonic ideals alive and well—the Supreme Court...but then, they don't have to run for office every couple of years."
"That's it!" Cromethius says, "That's the one talent that today's politician must have—the ability to run for office, to campaign, to win elections. That's all that counts. And that's the problem. During the first generation of the republic, many of our nation's leaders shared fundamental political values. They modeled their ideals of citizenship from the Roman Republic and Classical Greece. Personal virtue was considered a prerequisite to public office. Superior wisdom, energy, initiative, and moral stature—these are the qualities they sought and found in men like George Washington. The man should never seek the office, they believed, the office should seek the man."
“I agree with you again, Cromethius. Limiting terms is an excellent way to restore 'public service' to Government. Obviously, tougher campaign-finance regulations and ethics codes aren't working."
Cromethius nods, "Because they always find ways to get around them. Term limitations would be hard to circumvent. I've read that in a recent focus group study, The Congressional Institute found that voters preferred term-limitations to campaign-finance reform by a vote of 60 to 21. I'm certain that is typical of the nation as a whole."
"But will term limitations add any new chapters to that book of yours?" Rene asks. 'Will it open the door for a new hero, someone who will gallantly rush from the wings onto the political stage and rescue America?"
Cromethius gazes for a moment at a lithograph of James Madison and shakes his head.
"No, Rene. Because as you so wisely pointed out, there's always a television camera in the wings. So much for grand entrances. Ah, but look at the time! If you don't mind, Rene, I need to make a grand exit now."
To the west, a magnificent sunset spreads across the sky. Cromethius closes his book and stands with Rene. Together they walk toward the sunset.
Are there are any great men or women left in American politics today? Or is mediocrity all we can hope for? Have people changed so much since the early years of our republic, or is the media spotlight merely exposing the same flaws they have always had?