Tag Archives: leadership

Mary Sue Romney and the illusion of leadership

Sleeves rolled up? Check. In front of flag? Check. Pithy podium slogan? Check. All glory to the Leader!

Mitt Romney’s campaign out-fundraised the re-election campaign of incumbent President Barack Obama again last month with over $100 million in donations taken in, to say nothing of what is going to the various Super PACs supporting his candidacy (with naturally, no coordination whatsoever, fingers crossed, honest to God, swear on his baptized father-in-law’s grave).  A seemingly unending reservoir of money dedicated to pushing a man with no convictions he will not abandon, no principles he will not set aside and no lingering shred of integrity he won’t compromise in a heartbeat of expediency into the powerful office in the world.  A man so utterly mediocre and lacking in empathy and imagination, indeed, in personality, that in a logical world he should barely register in the single digits of political support, stands a dishearteningly good chance of taking over in November – and who knows what happens then.

Yet Mitt Romney epitomizes how our notions of what constitutes leadership have been distilled, diluted and dismantled.  In the darkest archives of fan fiction we find the concept of the “Mary Sue” – the flawless new-to-canon character who saves the day repeatedly with a combination of irresistible charm, unfathomable skill and perfect breasts.  Mitt Romney has neither charm, nor skill, nor any breasts that I’m aware of, but he does share one notable trait with Mary Sue:  they are both as dull as dishwater.  “Mitt Romney” in a novel would be rejected by a publisher for being bland, unappealing and unbelievable, but in real life he’s perilously close to winning the Presidency.  The problem is, bland is the new black.  Bland is the new leadership – a trope which has been drilled into our heads by seeing too many Romney types waving to the crowd in TV ads as a faceless voice repeats “strong leader” as many times as the 30-second spot will allow.  See enough of these, as Goebbels would note, and the message starts to seep in, regardless of how antithetical it may be to the nature of the person being described.  In Canada, enough of us believe Stephen Harper is a strong leader not on any evidence that he’s shown in his actual style of governance, but because four successive election campaigns have said that he is (and more to the point, that whichever Leader of the Opposition he’s been facing isn’t).  This proroguing, speech-stifling, attack ad-funding, shameless crony-appointing former oil company mailroom boy with a massive inferiority complex rates first in all polls of the Canadian leadership scene.  And the rest of the world asks, with 34 million of you to choose from, that frickin’ guy’s the best you could come up with?  Just like the rest of the world is looking at the U.S. race and saying “Look, perhaps President Obama hasn’t been perfect, but really?  The guy who strapped the dog to the roof of his car?”

Romney locked up the Republican nomination not because he was a singular, inspiring figure, but because he was less insane than the other pretenders to the throne – Newt-Tiffany’s-Gingrich, Herman-9-9-9-Cain, Rick-Old-Testament-Santorum, Ron-I-don’t-believe-in-Social-Security-but-I-still-collect-it-Paul and Rick-What-planet-am-I-on-anyway-let’s-just-shoot-it-Perry.  Faced with the prospect of any of those characters with their fingers on the nuclear trigger, Romney sounded like a much safer bet, beliefs in magic underwear, baptizing dead relatives and Planet Kolob aside.  His blandness enabled him to emerge from the pack of the weakest contenders the Republicans have ever fielded.  And blandness combined with money enables him to pose a serious challenge to a President who has struggled with the worst economy since the Depression and an opposition Congress determined to see it stay that way in the cynical expectation that voters afflicted with Guy Pearce’s illness from Memento will turn to them to right it.  This somehow translates to Romney being perceived, against all sense, as a leader. U.S. progressives hope that the presidential debates will be Obama’s chance to demonstrate for good how empty a shirt Romney is, but they forget that John Kerry wiped the floor with George W. Bush during their three sparring matches in 2004 and still lost the election.  Proof of leadership is unnecessary; the appearance of leadership is enough, even if it’s all smoke, mirrors and flight suits.

David Letterman has famously said of Mitt Romney, “He doesn’t look like a President, he looks like the guy who plays the President in a Canadian made-for-TV movie.”  For many, that’s a dream candidate.  The guy who takes no stands that might possibly make him the slightest bit unpopular, best expressed by Marlee Matlin’s pollster Joey Lucas on a first-season West Wing:  “There go my people, I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them.”  Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney once observed cannily that he and three of his contemporaries in the office reached the highpoint of their popularity before they had done anything.  Mitt Romney is at his best right now; there is no evidence whatsoever that he has it within him to “rise to the challenge of the office” and become a man of destiny.  One does not even get the sense that anybody particularly wants him to – infamous anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist has said publicly that he doesn’t want a President who thinks, just one who signs whatever Congress puts in front of him.  As long as Mitt Romney can spell his name, Norquist and his supporters think he’s leadership material.  A bar set so low it’s hovering near the earth’s core.

For the majority of the right, it’s enough that Romney is not Barack Hussein Obama.  But let no one labor under the illusion that leadership and gravitas is acquired just by not being someone else.  An orange is not a pineapple just because it’s not a pear.  Romney has no vision, no plan, and fundamentally no real belief in the nobility of the office he aspires to.  The evidence is overwhelming:  Mary Sue Romney should not be President, and hopefully it doesn’t require four agonizing years of a Romney presidency for America to realize that.

In search of lost leaders

I paraphrased that from Marcel Proust – a name any candidate for office drops at his or her own peril, lest they be labeled an out-of-touch, latte-sipping elitist and snob.  I haven’t read A la recherche du temps perdu – my experience of Proust is confined to multiple viewings of the “All-England Summarize Proust Competition” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  I did however slog my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses earlier this year.  (Spoiler alert:  the last word is “yes.”)  I didn’t read it so I could say I did whilst peering down my nose at the teenage girl devouring her dog-eared copy of Twilight.  I read it out of a sense of curiosity and wanting to enrich myself, and as a writer, wanting to learn from one of the masters.  Will it have any discernible impact on my own writing?  Can’t really say.  But the point wasn’t to reach a definitive goal.  It was to simply add another ingredient to the bubbling stew of my intellect – a concoction of memory, schooling, experience and opinion from which (hopefully) pours forth something of value.

Pardon me as I pause for another sip of my venti decaf mocha hazelnut frappucino.  I mention this as I watch the unfolding of two election campaigns with the memory of a third only a few months old, and bemoan the race to the bottom that each has become.  If there is a singular thread that runs through my handful of postings here, it is a profound belief in the capability of human beings at their best, and an equally profound disappointment at humanity’s choice not to exert its potential.  It’s a bit like watching Superman choose to sit on his porch with a beer just because he doesn’t feel like doing anything today.  Except instead of today it’s been the last 30 years.

Jimmy Carter was crushed in his bid for re-election by a guy who galvanized America with a bold, inspiring message.  The message wasn’t about the incredible things that America had done when it pulled together and shared sacrifice, like winning the Second World War or landing men on the moon.  No, it was that their government sucked.  (It remains frustrating to me that anyone can win election to office by decrying the office itself, but there you go.)  Ronald Reagan preached that government needed to be reined in, cut off at the knees, drowned in the bathtub.  This message resonated so deeply, coupled with the other side’s failure to articulate a decent rebuttal, that it has informed the political discourse in the U.S. ever since.  It’s disappointing to see even President Barack Obama buy into Reagan’s fallacy as he describes his battles with a Congress full of people who literally hate his guts.  The debate has moved so far to the right that those of us on the other side feel like we’re a yard from our own end zone with 15 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter.

The rebuttal should be that government works when the right people (pardon the uncomfortable pun) are running it.  And that is, subliminally, something that most people do agree with.  People want leadership.  “Strong leader” is one of the most important factors when pollsters take the temperature of the electorate’s attitude towards candidates.  Yet the atmosphere has become so trying that truly great leaders won’t even make the ballot, let alone win.  Television and 24/7 media scrutiny played on endless repeat with panel discussions, five-day-long specials and exclusive interviews has made it so that only the blandest folks can survive the onslaught.  An email used to circulate a few years ago where you were given three biographies and asked to pick which you thought would make the best leader – only after you’d picked were you given the names.  I don’t remember the exact details, but basically, the first was a drunk, the second was a cripple and the third was a squeaky-clean vegetarian customs clerk.  Based on the bios you always went for the clerk, only to discover that it was Hitler – while the former were Churchill and FDR respectively.

We’ve seen plenty of prospective leaders undone by the smallest gaffes.  Howard Dean, the progressive governor of Vermont who was leading in the early 2004 Democratic presidential race, was finished off by media overreaction to an exuberant scream he gave during a rally-the-troops speech to his supporters.  Not a sex scandal, illegal nanny or even a misfiled income tax return.  A scream.  Michael Ignatieff, the highly-regarded writer, educator and public intellectual, led Canada’s Liberal Party to its worst-ever defeat after being hounded in attack ads and the press for having lived several years abroad.  Again, he hadn’t fathered a kid with the maid or been caught snorting cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  He was attacked for having lived outside the country.  No one can say what kind of leaders these guys would have been had they won.  But the circumstances of their undoing merely reinforced the meme that safe and bland is a winning strategy.  In fact, you don’t have to be a strong leader at all – you just have to say you are over and over again and people will start to believe it, regardless of the evidence to the contrary, or lack of any evidence of leadership qualities at all.

If we are defined by our mistakes, and our character shaped by our reactions to them, what can be said of people who don’t make any?  How is someone who grew up in comfort and was parachuted into his career by his country club father, someone who has never had to take risks and has never experienced the ache and disappointment of loss and personal failings ever supposed to empathize with the plight of drug addicts or the homeless, or the simple working man who has to scratch for every dime to feed his family?  How is that person supposed to unite the differing interests of a vast country and guide them into a new and better era?  When you occasion to wonder why we haven’t gone back to the moon, or to Mars, or really progressed very much further in our evolution, you have only to look at the mediocrities we’ve entrusted to lead us – people with no imagination, no soul, no capability of looking beyond the end of the spreadsheet.  Politicians cruise to landslide victories on promises of nothing more than tax cuts.  We then act surprised when they don’t deliver anything else.

If someone is capable, if they are intelligent, if they are curious, if they have lived a learned and compassionate life, if they have a sense of humor, if they have experienced the world beyond their borders, if they believe in the ability of government to unite and do good, if they are driven to challenge and enrich themselves, and if the cruelties of regret have forged the gravitas of statesmen, then quite frankly, I don’t care if they have snorted cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  I’m more likely to admire them for admitting that and making light of it rather than succumbing to the papal-like finger-pointing of the media and the opposing party.  We need to remember that the best of us are broken in some way, and that by demanding perfection in candidates we won’t get leaders, we’ll only get managers – those guys who in the private sector become terrific assistant vice-presidents but never really impact anybody’s life but their own.  I hope to be more than that, and I hope we are one day again led by someone who is more than that.

So maybe I will pick up that copy of Proust after all.  And hopefully, a future leader is doing so right now as well.