How Leadership Will Change The Way Washington Works

Late Breaking News! –– Hilary Rodham Clinton wearing dark glasses stops for a working woman’s lunch (a burrito bowl) at a Chipoltle near Toledo Ohio in an awkward and vain attempt to convince the public which after over 35 years probably recognizes her that she’s an “everyday American” on her way to visit “everyday Iowans” in her “Scooby Van”.  Hillary may have been an “everyday American” 35 years ago, but her history and activities, indeed her accomplishments for the last 25 years illustrate that she hasn’t been an average or “everyday American” for a while and she isn’t now.  So she ought to stop trying to be what she is not.   Hillary can demonstrate that she can and does care about “everyday Americans” without pretending almost cartoon-like to be one.  Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy pulled that off nicely.  So can Hilary.

Hillary’s rollout as New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni describes it –“an oxymoronic wonder of planned spontaneity and engineered authenticity” does however compare favorably to the attack-fest on Hilary staged by the nineteen Republicans who descended upon the hills of New Hampshire “to test the waters” for their respective candidacies for President of the United States.   Apparently, with the notable exceptions of Jeb Bush, Lindsay Graham, John Kasich and Chris Christie, who at least intermingled some ideas and suggested policies with criticisms principally of Hillary and to a lesser extent somewhat surprisingly President Obama, these candidates and their staffs have apparently concluded that the Republican nominee will be selected on the basis of the degree of vehemence and cleverness of their attacks on Hillary.  If that is the case, most are still in the race if vehemence is going to be the test.  If however cleverness is going to be a factor, we may be seeking fresh faces after this week.

The one thing that Hillary and all of the Republican candidates agree on and proclaim loudly is that they want to “change the way Washington works” although if you listen to each of them you will quickly notice that they really don’t agree on how they want Washington to change and what way they want it to work.

What is the best method to “change the way Washington works”?  Michael Ignatieff, a former professor at Harvard and contributing writer for The New York Times, a member of Canada’s Parliament and Deputy Leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, writes directly on point when he points out that the attribute that underpins “good judgment” in politicians “is a sense of reality, which is to be distinguished from what is considered good judgment in intellectual life.”  Among intellectuals, judgment is about generalizing and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea.  In contrast, in politics, specifics matter more than generalities.  Theory can often get in the way of a politician’s understanding of what the true reality is.

Ignatieff illustrates his opinion further by reference to historical figures like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and the writing about them by the Philosopher Isaiah Berlin.  Berlin explains that, “what is called wisdom in statesmen is understanding  rather than knowledge – some kind of acquaintance with relevant facts of such a kind that enable those who have it to tell what fits with what; what can be done in given circumstances and what cannot; what means will work in what situations and how far, without necessarily being able to explain how they know this or even what they know.”

This means, very simply put, that politicians can’t confuse the world as it is with the world as they wish it to be.  As Michael Ignatieff emphasizes, “there is no science of decision making – the vital judgments a politician makes every day are about people; whom to trust, whom to believe and whom to avoid.”  Having good judgment in these matters and having a sound sense of reality therefore requires trusting some very unscientific instincts and intuitions about people, as well as a sense of timing of when to leap and when to remain still.

Bismarck famously remarked – “Political Judgment is the ability to hear before anyone else the distant hoof beats of the horse of history.”  Likewise, Samuel Beckett’s statement “Fail again, Fail better” captured an even clearer perspective on the inner confidence, personal comfort and security necessary to success in the political arena.  Churchill and De Gaulle kept faith with their political judgment even when elite opinion strongly believed them to be wrong.  Their willingness to wait for historical validation looks like greatness now.

Finally, and most importantly, doesn’t having good judgment in politics depend on being a critical judge of oneself, which in turn means recognizing his or her own personal limitations from which prudence arises and upon which sound judgment relies.  That means confronting the world without preconception every day and learning mostly from our mistakes what works and what doesn’t work while at the same time recognizing that even lengthy experience can fail us in life, love and politics.

Which one of the candidates understands himself or herself well enough to exercise sound judgment and be an effective leader?  The answer to that question is the answer to who can best change “The Way Washington Works.”