Thursday, January 6, 2011

Where Have All The Leaders Gone?

Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated with American history. That was partially a function of growing up at the time of the Bicentennial, when everyone was talking about the events and personalities of the Revolutionary War. Over time, my interest coalesced around post-World War II history, especially the period between 1960 and 1970.

What fascinates me about that particular period of history is that it was a time of tremendous change dominated by individuals who, seen from today’s perspective, seem larger than life.

Think about it.

Four men served as president during that period: Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

Eisenhower had conquered Adolf Hitler long before he ever became president. A legitimate war hero buoyed by his father's wealth, Kennedy contended with missiles in Cuba. A legendarily effective Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson pushed the historic 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts through Congress as president. Five times nominated for national office, Richard Nixon ended the Vietnam War and engaged in high diplomatic theatre by going to China.

Of course, Kennedy’s presidency ended in tragedy, Johnson’s amid war and civil unrest, and Nixon’s due to scandal. Still, in a perverse way, the epic manners in which these presidencies fell only served to elevate each man’s status as a larger than life historical figure.

Besides the presidents, other figures of major historical importance dominated the political landscape: Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Daley. Others – like California Governor Ronald Reagan – started their ascendancy. Even the decade’s biggest electoral loser – Senator Barry Goldwater – has since been elevated in reputation beyond his defeat because of his role in launching the conservative movement.

This all causes me to ponder two questions.

First, why was there such a cluster of historical heavyweights on the scene during that period?

Perhaps it was because events like the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the Cold War, and the space race provided a dramatic backdrop against which these individuals could rise and be noticed.

Perhaps it was because the media universe was limited to three major broadcast networks and a few opinion-making daily newspapers, meaning that these individuals received a disproportionate share of the attention.

Or, perhaps these individuals did not seem quite as historic at the time as they do now. Maybe forty years of hagiography and historical rumination has elevated them to their current status. I tend not to buy this explanation. My sense is that people who lived in the 1960s understood they were living in significant times dominated by a handful of consequential leaders. And, in three cases, assassination contributed to the  legend-building.

The other question I have: Who are today’s counterparts to Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and King?

As I look around, I am not entirely sure there are any.

Barack Obama is the first black president, so that certainly gives him historical cache. But so far, he has seemed overwhelmed by the presidency, and has yet to emerge as the transformational figure some hoped he would be.    

George W. Bush served the country during the 9/11 attacks, two wars, and an economic meltdown. Presidents who serve during especially difficult periods are often looked upon favorably by historians, even when they left office deeply unpopular (as did Harry Truman). A recent poll demonstrates that Bush’s retrospective approval rating among Americans has climbed from 34 percent to 47 percent in just two years. Still, Bush’s rehabilitation has a long way to go.

As for the first President Bush, he was a talented commander in chief, but will likely be regarded as an extension of Ronald Reagan – or even an interlude between Reagan and two-term President Bill Clinton.

Bill Clinton was a popular president who benefited from a surging economy and, ironically, having his political opponents in charge of Congress. There is no doubt that he was one of the most politically savvy presidents in history. But his pragmatism, penchant for scandal, and the relative calm and prosperity of the 1990s  mitigate the perception that he was a game-changing political figure.

Jimmy Carter? Give me a break…

Also, when one looks at the crop of current and recent presidential hopefuls – John Kerry, John McCain, Al Gore, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee – none yet seems to measure up in gravitas to the 1960s figures I mentioned before.

Of course, John Kennedy did not start out as JFK – the marbleized figure we remember. Events and the personalities and talents of the individuals themselves shape a leader’s legacy.

Because of the growth of cable news, the Internet, YouTube, social media, and other sources of information, we may never again see figures who dominated the agenda and the spotlight as thoroughly as the leaders of the 1960s did. Today every politico who wants a microphone and an audience can likely find one somewhere.

I still think America is capable of producing larger than life leaders. Moving forward, the real challenge is going to be having the ability to look beyond the din and recognize them when they emerge.


  1. Beautiful blog RC! I was really brought back in time. I think that this new crop of Conservatives in the House has a few potential Great Leaders--men and women that actually have worked in the real world and are now dedicating their lives to putting the country back on track. If Republicans are brave enough to stick to the agenda that we elected them into office to pursue...they need to bring Like minded Staff, appointments etc in to do that.

  2. Thank you for an interesting look at the topic.

    That period was the end of back-room political party dominance. As we know, the parties decided who was going be the personality that would be put forward as the public leader and persona of the party. But after 1974, that was not the case.

    Since then, politicians have chosen to self-identify as the leader. leaders from the pre-Nixon years orchestrated the changes that emasculated the parties, leaving those leaders as the focal point for political leadership. To maintain the public perception, they were very careful to inflict as much damage as possible to anyone they perceived as a challenger. It took lucky timing for new personalities to step forward, but they didn't possess the support of the back room boys.

    They became popular personalities. The only reason they seemed to be leaders is that everyone else chose to step back and leave them in front of the group.

    The popular personalty, not having learned to be a leader, assumed that they were the only choice that members of their party had. They, too, did their best to thwart growth in the party, permitting only those who had sworn loyalty and fealty to the popular personalty.

    We have seen this repeatedly in the last twenty years. Everyone sits on their hands waiting for the popular one to decide their next move. It a prior era, the potential challenger would either tell the top dog to dial or get out of the booth, or would build the finances to declare war. Party was no longer a player, only a tool.

    Our leaders now go to places other than politics to practice their wares, leaving voids in our political leadership.

    Six years ago, when discussing the 2008 presidential race, I told everyone I knew that it didn't matter who won the Democratic nomination because Hillary couldn't get elected because of inexperience and baggage, Obama was a shallow opportunist, unproven and unable to hold the interest of the electorate because of his blatant opportunism. It didn't matter, I was certain, who the Republican nominee was because they all outshone the opposition. I though Romney would carry the day.

    There is currently no means for us to return to finding leaders willing to get involved in politics. It will take the second coming for this to change.