We Need Leaders—Not Entertainers

Darn you, JFK!

It’s hard not to feel this way when we continue to see the reverberations of Kennedy’s made-for-television presidency play out to their seemingly inevitable and frankly disturbing conclusion on our 24 hour news and entertainment networks.

To be honest and fair about it, by today’s carefully coiffed and sound bite scripted standards, JFK wasn’t even that much of a media wizard.  If he were, his children would have had their own website, Jackie her own reality show, and those family touch football games an ESPN special with a suitably blond commentator flirting up a storm of double entendre with our handsome young President.  Ah, the innocence of those days spent waiting for the latest issue of Life to supply our Camelot fix.

Now we watch our political leaders and their loyal underlings on Oprah, The Daily Show, and The View spinning their message madly as a pre-emptive strike against the pre-emptive strike of their political opponents.  Today it’s all about the slicing and dicing of our exhausted and bewildered electorate so as to properly calibrate the message based on the results from the latest round of focus groups.  One-liners are obligatory.  Inflammatory rhetoric is de rigueur.   A winning smile—or the reasonable facsimile of one—is now practiced as assiduously as one’s tennis backhand.

And watching it all are the mavens of the media monster.  Telling us constantly who is wining—and who is losing.  This month.  This week.  This minute.  Thoughtful reflection is for wimps.  Now all we care about is the clash of steely words designed to denigrate both one’s opponents and—by extension—our processes of representative government.  On one side we have the idiots; on the other we have the fools.  The next day, we have the clash of the naïve optimists and cool-headed realists.  The day after that we watch the criminally stupid and the stupidly criminal.  And on an on is goes, gouging out the broad and typically sensible middle of our political discourse and leaving us with the class bullies and prom queens to govern our wounded republic as if it is some national version of the local middle school playground.

We are, of course, reaping what we have sown.  Given that we now reward entertainment that appeals to our baser instincts for sensationalism, it is little wonder that our leaders now more and more act as if they are auditioning the a new reality television show—The Real Legislators of Washington, D.C., perhaps.  We recently were treated to the spectacle of a comedian being invited to Capitol Hill to testify on matters relating to the critical issue of illegal immigrants working as farm laborers.  Many were outraged, but, to be perfectly fair, just how many scant degrees of separation was this from “Arh-nold” announcing his candidacy for the office of California Governor on The Tonight Show back in the media Stone Age of 2003?  Nowadays I suppose the next movie star running for Governor of California will simply grace us with a Tweet before inviting in the networks for an intimate and revealing chat—with highlights instantly available on the Internet.

We need to rediscover the joys of dull competence.  I realize this is a tall order when an endlessly multiplying and mutating media circus is desperately clawing for whatever dirt or dysfunction is available, but I believe we need to start looking for leadership that seems a bit less aware of projecting character through their choice of eyewear or a carefully calibrated hand chop at the conclusion of a talking point.  Let’s look for leaders who are secure enough in their own skins to cast the media consultants from the halls of power and run the risk of appearing less glibly polished than George Clooney on the red carpet at a Hollywood premiere.  Of course, we voters have to hold up our end of the bargain.  I, for one, am ready to pledge I will never question the hairstyle, shoes, choice of pet, or skin care product of a candidate for public office; I will, however, carefully question their policies on deficit reduction, military readiness, improving public education, and caring for both our seniors and our children.  I hope all voters will consider doing the same.

As for our candidates and elected officials, we need to encourage them to re-establish some boundaries.  There is, after all, a world of difference between over-sharing and integrity—we all need to get this idea re-implanted firmly in our minds.  Politicians should not seek to unburden their hearts at every opportunity—and voters should not demand they do so.  Let’s learn not to care so desperately about the personal lives of our elected officials and, instead, focus on how their policy positions will impact on our personal lives.

Given that we have become a society that has become absolutely obsessed with every salacious or heart rending detail of everyone else’s lives, we need to daily remind ourselves that politics is not mere spectacle—the decisions made today will affect our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren.  If we can get ourselves on the path of “explain how you plan to stabilize our banks” rather than “tell us about the stability of your marriage”, we might be able to restore some balance to our nation.  However, until we start to get some good old “it’s none of your business” answers from our leaders when some overeager reporter or pundit out to make a name for themselves crosses the line, we’re going to be stuck in a cycle where gossip is offered up in place of answers.

Memo to all office-holders and candidates: If you know of a sure-fire method to keep your abs rock-hard, please keep it—to yourself.  You will earn the eternal thanks of our nation.

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