Politics & Policy

On Leadership


I used to dabble in the family literary-agent business (I no longer do. I have no suggestions or advice for would-be authors — please, please, please, stop sending me manuscripts). The standard advice I gave to would-be novelists was passed on to me by the president of the agency — who I usually called “Mom.” Anyway, the advice was “Show, don’t tell.” It’s not exactly advice like “never play poker with a man whose first name is the same as a city,” (though I think naming my kid “Cincinnati Goldberg” would be pretty cool), but it’s very good advice, nonetheless.

Hemingway was a great show writer. I was once told that he wrote the original drafts of The Old Man and the Sea with lots of back story and explanatory material. And then for his final draft he cut everything out but the essential bits. This was compared to an iceberg. The reader only gets to see the small shiny bit on the surface even though the author is aware of the vast base which supports the visible part. But, I digress.

Fiction is a lot more like drama than, say, essay-writing. In the theater, “show, don’t tell” is an obvious axiom. If a character in Long Day’s Journey Into Night started explaining all of his motivations — “I am very angry with you because you were a bad father and I have oedipal feelings for Mom and therefore I want to make you feel inadequate” — the realism would be ruined. Instead actors must be as authentic as possible, revealing their motivations through action rather than exposition, hiding the base of the iceberg.

This is good advice for politicians too. Ronald Reagan once said that he couldn’t understand how you could be a president without being an actor. His enemies took such sentiments as evidence that he was a con man or an empty vessel. Ironically, the truth was otherwise. He was, in fact, purely authentic. All he could do was show, not tell. Edmund Morris failed to capture his subject precisely because there was no subterfuge to Reagan. In private the president would say the same thing he said in public. He would tell the same stories and offer the same explanations for actions that he gave to a hundred million people. Sure he was called “the Great Communicator” and he was, but he was no slick salesman. Reagan truly believed everything he said. And as Morris has said, Reagan moved toward his goals with unstoppable glacial speed and glacial determination.

President Bush was exactly the opposite. He would often simply declare things like “message: I care” because he couldn’t communicate actual concern. Ronald Reagan never needed to come up with phrases like “read my lips” because people understood Reagan’s nature. I remember Bush once actually read his notes as an answer to a question about David Duke, he said something to the effect of, “I want to appear so as that I am distancing myself as much as possible from Duke.”

This habit of reading stage direction rather than your dialogue has infected the entire party. Republicans are constantly explaining strategy as if it’s substance. If the Times or the Washington Post calls a Republican congressmen and asks him, “What do you need to do to win?” he’s likely to say something like: “If we can only pick up 15% of the black vote we’ll be able to stop the Democrats.” But a typical Democrat will say “If we stick to our core issues of helping all Americans, we win. If the Republicans continue to polarize the electorate and cruelly deprive the most needy they will lose.” Don’t believe me? Well, Senator George Voinovich tells the Times today, “I just pray that we don’t get into this tax-reduction thing that we did last year, because there’s no audience.”

Imagine Reagan saying such a thing.

Reagan stuck to his guns and brought the people with him (it’s called “leadership”). Now, Republicans won’t even follow the people. Political scientist, Everett Carl Ladd has an interesting piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, in which he points out that Republican issues are still ascendant. A majority of Americans believe that Republican policies — as espoused by congressional Republicans! — would move the country in the right direction. Voinovich is wrong too, by the way. A majority of Americans also favor tax reduction.

Ladd argues that occasionally a politician comes around who can tie together a party’s political positions as well as connect that philosophy to traditional American values. He says Republicans should miss Newt Gingrich because he was that kind of politician. Gingrich provided intellectual momentum and coherence to Republican politics. He could explain why pro-lifers should be against high taxes and why foreign-policy hawks should be for school choice. Remember, Gingrich was the guy who delivered NAFTA for President Clinton. He did it because it was the right thing to do for the country and for the cause, even if it helped Clinton. One doubts that if there was another NAFTA to come up these days that Republicans would deliver such a victory to the president (note to critics, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is not a good example because that thing deserved to die).

Still, Gingrich was no Reagan. Gingrich was governed by his intellect; Reagan by his heart. Gingrich was constantly explaining. Reagan was always doing. That difference is everything. It is the difference between showing and telling. And, it is the difference between what we need and what we have.


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