America: Trouble at the top

Sam Smith – They no longer build pyramids in Egypt, Mexico or Guatemala. The British royalty is beginning to fall apart. We elected someone like Donald Trump to lead us through the worst pandemic in a century. The US Senate was helpless to deal with Trump. The electric grid system in Texas couldn’t handle a bad snow storm. In short, cultures do decay. We just don’t like to talk about it.
To be sure, we have Joe Biden to brighten things up a bit, but it’s worth remembering that in the first hundred days of the Franklin Roosevelt administration, it passed an emergency relief act, an employment systems act, an industrial recovery act, an agricultural act and created the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. I’m not sure we could handle that sort of efficiency these days.
Given the congressional margins with which he has been cursed, we can’t expect Biden to match this, but he still stands out as a different sort of leader than we’ve become accustomed to. As someone who has covered presidents since Eisenhower, I think of Biden in a small class of presidents such as Jimmy Carter, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson who were good at getting things done – not just because the things were good but because they knew how to work with other people and the actual facts of the matter.
Sure, Obama was a nice guy but he quite a different training. As I wrote a couple of years ago:
Since LBJ, the party has increasingly deserted populist causes and been trapped between defeat and a tantalizing break-even division with the GOP. One unnoted factor in this: the liberal elite has become wealthier and better educated. For example, back in the 1950s we were turning out 5,000 MBAs a year, by 2005 the figure was 142,000. In 1970 we produced 65,000 Phds, last year the figure was 181,000. And in 2009 the Washingtonian Magazine estimated there were 80,000 lawyers in DC.
Barack Obama thus represents a new era in American politics: the ultimate triumph of the gradocracy. Here is Wikipedia’s summary of his early career:
“In late 1988, Obama entered Harvard Law School. He was selected as an editor of the Harvard Law Review at the end of his first year and president of the journal in his second year. During his summers, he returned to Chicago, where he worked as an associate at the law firms of Sidley Austin in 1989 and Hopkins & Sutter in 1990. After graduating with a J.D. magna cum laude from Harvard in 1991, he returned to Chicago. In 1991, Obama accepted a two-year position as Visiting Law and Government Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School to work on his first book. He then taught at the University of Chicago Law School for twelve years-as a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996, and as a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004-teaching constitutional law. In 1993, he joined Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a 13-attorney law firm specializing in civil rights litigation and neighborhood economic development, where he was an associate for three years from 1993 to 1996, then of counsel from 1996 to 2004. His law license became inactive in 2007.”
Key to such a career is intense attention to process, regulations, the manipulation of language and data. Applied to politics, this means the human factor can start to bring up the rear. Politics is then no longer like music in which soul and skill are melded; instead it becomes another bureaucracy. Good evidence of this in the Obama years would be Obamacare, a two thousand page hard to decipher collection of virtue, uncertain results, payoffs to the health industry, and excessive paper work. A good politician of another time would have led with something that everyone understood, such as lowering the age of Medicare, and then adding on their favorite sweetheart deals.
It is not that it is wrong to study or practice the law, economics, business or education. But to usurp other skills, behavior, empirical knowledge and types of wisdom makes no more sense than for a dentist to attempt to instruct an attorney on how to address the court because he’s an expert on teeth.
I covered my first Washington story back in the 1950s and one of the things that fascinated me about politicians back then was their ability to talk United States. Public works were public works, not infrastructure. And racism didn’t need “systemic” attached to it. One of the problems with the liberal elite these days that it no longer knows how to talk to those who haven’t been as successful as they. And so we have a con artist like Donald Trump pretending to be a friend of the working class and getting away with it because liberals don’t even know how to talk to those who used to form the liberal base. Whether liberalism can recover this former base is uncertain at best. But it’s worth a try.
One way you can see how things have changed is to look at the childhood of a couple of the more effective politicians.
James Earl Carter was … the first child of farmer and small businessman James Earl Carter and former nurse Lillian Gordy Carter. At five, Jimmy already showed a talent for business: he began to sell peanuts on the streets of Plains. At the age of nine, Carter invested his earnings in five bales of cotton, which he stored for several years and then sold at a profit. With this money he was able to purchase five old houses in Plains… Following his father’s death from cancer, he returned to Plains to manage the family-owned farm and peanut warehouses. In order to keep up with modern farming methods, he studied at the Agricultural Experimental Station in Tifton, Georgia. During these years in Plains, Carter was active in a number of civic organizations.
[Harry Truman’s father John] Truman was a farmer and livestock dealer… When Truman was six, his parents moved to Independence, Missouri, so he could attend the Presbyterian Church Sunday School. He did not attend a conventional school until he was eight. While living in Independence, he served as a Shabbos goy for Jewish neighbors, doing tasks for them on Shabbat that their religion prevented them from doing on that day.
[Truman] rose at five every morning to practice the piano, which he studied more than twice a week until he was fifteen, becoming quite a skilled player…. After graduating from Independence High School in 1901, Truman enrolled in Spalding’s Commercial College, a Kansas City business school. He studied bookkeeping, shorthand, and typing…
Truman made use of his business college experience to obtain a job as a timekeeper on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, sleeping in hobo camps near the rail lines. He then took on a series of clerical jobs, and was employed briefly in the mail room of The Kansas City Star. Truman and his brother Vivian later worked as clerks at the National Bank of Commerce in Kansas City.
Now let’s look at Joe Biden:

Biden’s father had been wealthy, but suffered financial setbacks around the time Biden was born, and for several years the family lived with Biden’s maternal grandparents. Scranton fell into economic decline during the 1950s and Biden’s father could not find steady work. Beginning in 1953, the family lived in an apartment in Claymont, Delaware, before moving to a house in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden Sr. later became a successful used-car salesman, maintaining the family in a middle-class lifestyle

Biden credits his parents with instilling in him toughness, hard work and perseverance. He has recalled his father frequently saying, “Champ, the measure of a man is not how often he is knocked down, but how quickly he gets up.”.

As a child, Biden struggled with a stutter, and kids called him “Dash” and “Joe Impedimenta” to mock him. He eventually overcame his speech impediment by memorizing long passages of poetry and reciting them out loud in front of the mirror.

Now let’s go back to the pandemic and the Texas grid disaster. The fact is that folks like Biden, Carter and Truman don’t make it to the top so easily any more. Much better to become a really good lawyer, an MBA or well trained in public relations. A major part of our organizations are run by principles stemming from these sources, despite the fact that the ultimate purpose of these organizations may be electrical energy, health services or education. Those at the top have become less trained to deal with the real purpose of their job. And, unlike the Bidens, Carters and Trumans they are less trained or inclined to ask help from those who know something.

Hence we had a president treating the pandemic like it was just another Trump Tower operation.

I have a sense of this little discussed problem in part because when I entered journalism over half of the reporters in the country only had a high school education. What they knew was how to tell a story right.

I also learned it from youthful summers working in Maine where I heard an expression I still recall from time to time: “Fix it up-make it do-use it up -do without.”

It is this skill with the specific that we are losing as a culture so we can look forward to some more overlong pandemics and cities without power.

It was more fun when more at the top understood what they were doing.

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