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DNA of Leadership

April 4th, 2006 by dk

Most of the country wishes we could change presidents right now, but we’re not a banana republic that switches leaders whenever the junta strikes (yet). So how do we pass the time for the next 30 months? We have before us right now an unusual opportunity to learn what makes an effective leader in the 21st century.

Ronald Reagan was a certifiably great leader for our age. Whether you agree with his policies or politics or not, you must marvel at his ability to stand before us and speak for all Americans. When the Space Shuttle exploded and he read that poem on television, I don’t mind admitting that I cried. You probably did too.

The aura of Ronald Reagan wasn’t only stagecraft. It wasn’t his acting abilities. It was something deeper and more truthful. When the first Bush was swept into the Oval Office on Reagan’s coattails, it quickly became apparent he lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. He lost at his first opportunity to Bill Clinton.

The Bush family had eight years to consider what Clinton had that Bush Sr. lacked. More precisely, how Clinton was like Reagan more than Bush Sr. was like Reagan. The answer they must have found was “optimism.” Reagan was famously sunny. But Bush was more calculating, a technocrat with diplomacy in his blood. He measured his gestures. He was a realist. He passed a tax increase that broke his promise because it was necessary.

Eight years later, Bush Junior wouldn’t make the same mistakes. He would be more like Reagan than his father had been. So he’s never wavered on his no-tax pledge. Or on any other pledge, for that matter. And he’s been relentlessly upbeat. About the economy, the war, the armed forces, his staff, you name it. He was, after all, a cheerleader at Yale.

But Bush’s optimism doesn’t create the same effect as Reagan’s optimism. Reagan was sure things would work out and he’d somehow manage to bring many of us along. His optimism was infectious. Regular people worked harder and longer after hearing the president talk about how no nation can match our mighty work force. Reagan pulled a lever that created more wealth than the world had ever seen: the optimism of the average American.

But when Bush exudes confidence about himself and all of us, it seems to suck all the sunniness from the room. The more upbeat he becomes, the less upbeat there is to go around. Reagan was the Teflon president. Bush is fast becoming our tar baby.

So optimism alone is not the secret sauce. You must add magnanimity, or the optimism strikes us as either cynical or selfish. Or, as in the most recent cases, both.

Reagan was genuinely optimistic and deeply so. He seemed to care for every individual he encountered. When he told Gorbachev in Iceland that they “could have made history,” it seemed the comment a friend would make. We like that in a leader.

This Bush was known as his father’s enforcer, strict and unforgiving. Eight years was not enough time to lipstick the pig. But we also learned something during those intervening Between-Bush Years. Clinton taught us that somebody too magnanimous (and without a watchful spouse) can be taken advantage of, even if a certain young intern had no such intentions.

An effective national leader in this age displays certain characteristics, in all circumstances and over many years. Optimism and openhandedness are two basic elements. Maybe there are more. We may as well spend the next couple years noting what we wish we had when it’s gone.

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  • 1 horsebaker May 11, 2006 at 2:31 pm

    I found your essay in a cartoon mag printed periodically out of somewhere south of burlington vermont. With so much speculation from the herds
    of dinos that control the dem party over their forth
    coming opportunity., I am always curious about those who purport to advise on strategy.
    Your essay was a total shock, coming as it did from a normally righteously indignant left wing cartoon repository. Since I spend an inordinate amount of time researching framing and media
    subversion, the first reaction to inauspiciously
    placed rah rah reagan essay is, is this a trojan
    horse for the cia?