The results of the Ohio and Texas primaries are trickling in as I write this. Vermont has already gone to Obama and McCain appears to have secured sufficient delegates to win the GOP nomination. Of the three candidates, I believe only one represents real change – Barack Obama. That’s not a political endorsement on my part or an indicator of who I’m voting for in November, just an observation. As I see it, a Clinton or McCain presidency would be based on established, proven “players” from within the political system. Because Obama is a relative newcomer to power politics at the top level, he doesn’t have the entrenched “party machine” with all of its functionaries behind him – at least not yet.
I’ve been reflecting on the current political season as I’m reading the 1992 edition of David Halberstam’s famous book – The Best and the Brightest. I vaguely remember reading it when I was a young man, but I must admit that it didn’t interest me then like it does now. The book is essentially about the administration of President John F. Kennedy (JFK) and the roots of the Vietnam War. Halberstam does a great job describing all of the major players and correlating who they were with what they did or didn’t do.
JFK rode into office on the winds of change, promising to bring fresh faces and a fresh outlook to the White House and American politics. The men he selected to run the country were truly considered by most to be the best and the brightest – but not everyone was awed. Halberstam recounts Lyndon Johnson’s response upon encountering some of these men in his first Cabinet meeting. “…he went back to his mentor Sam Rayburn and told him with great enthusiasm how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next, and that the smartest of them all was…[Robert] McNamara. ’Well, Lyndon’, Mister Sam answered, ‘you may be right…but I’d feel a whole lot better if just one of them had run for sheriff once’.”
In setting forth the primary weakness of the Kennedy team (their achilles heel), Halberstam describes some aspects of what I call the first challenge of change. Bringing in fresh faces; intelligent, highly-commited people who can think “outside the box” wasn’t and isn’t enough. This is particularly true today when so many people confuse information with knowledge and intelligence with wisdom. As Halberstam says, “true wisdom…is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” In our “get-it now” culture, very few are willing to invest the time and energy it takes to develop wisdom. It’s much easier to throw things against the wall and see what sticks. If it works, we call it “inspired”, the modern take on what constitutes wisdom.
The second challenge of change involves bridging the gap between perception and reality. By the end of the presidential campaign, particularly if Obama wins, people will have been saturated with media images promising large-scale, rapid change. Within months, this image will be dashed upon the rocks of political reality, as the new administration comes face-to-face with governmental institutions that were founded and are upheld by ideology, rules, and laws from another era – where bureaucracy and senority are the tools of power. Little did Halberstam know that he was speaking prophetically in describing the initial phase of the Kennedy presidency: “…he was charged with action against a bureaucracy and a Congress which regarded him and his programs with suspicion, the suspicion varying in direct proportion to the freshness and progressiveness of his ideas.”
There’s nothing new under the sun…kind of makes you think twice about “voting for change” doesn’t it?