Monday, September 10, 2012

About All That Love Talk

After listening to Edward VIII's post-abdication broadcast in December 1936 (in which he famously explained his behavior because of his need for "the help and support of the woman I love"), one commentator is supposed to have remarked something to the effect that it was odd to hear a king speaking the language of romance magazines. Technically, of course, he was already an ex-king by then, but the point certainly still applies – and one I kept recalling during the recent political convention love-fest, at which speaker after speaker seemed to feel the need to begin by referencing his love for his wife (or her love for her husband). Of course, it's generally a good thing that people love their spouses. And, on balance, I think we are better off as a nation the more that people do so - and in particular the more that those in positions of power do so. My problem is not with the love, but with the talk, and with how what in 1936 still clearly belonged to "the language of romance magazines" suddenly seems to have almost taken over our public political language.

A week or so ago, I commented on a recent biography about two really great mid-20th-century Presidents, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower - contrasting them to the caliber of leaders we have been producing in recent decades. I think that their example is also eminently relevant to the point at issue. Anyone who knows anything about Truman, for example, knows how faithfully and deeply devoted he was to the love of his life, Bess Truman. But can anyone seriously imagine him beginning a major political speech professing his love for her? Of course not! It probably wouldn't even have occurred to him to do so. Obviously, that's not because he didn't love Bess, but because such private sentimentality simply didn't belong in the public square; and, if the question had been asked most people at the time would certainly would have agreed that it didn't. (It may not be an accident that by far the best address at the Democratic Convention, Bill Clinton's, also stuck to substance and largely avoided "the language of romance magazines").

In part, I suppose, all this may be just another example of the empathetic sentimentality that has so noticeably taken the place of rational discussion in so many important areas of life - even including moral decision-making. To some extent, I guess, it is also part of our overall obsession to "humanize" our public figures. Inevitably perhaps in a politics based on popular elections, there is a perennial tension between aristocratic and democratic criteria. We want our leaders to be the best. I certainly don't want someone like me running the country. On the contrary, I want someone smarter and better prepared than I could ever hope to be. But I also want someone who can understand me and my values. So, yes, we want to choose the best and the brightest, but within that group we'll pick an Eisenhower over a MacArthur any time. An unabashed aristocrat - an FDR or a George H.W. Bush - may merit the nod (four times in FDR's case), but such an aristocratic figure's long-term effectiveness and shorter-term prospects for success significantly depend on his personal ability to evidence a real comprehension of and respect for ordinary citizens and their values. And in that regard, FDR, without ever pretending to be anything but an aristocrat, succeeded very well.

So, like loving one's wife, empathy is not a bad thing. In fact it's a good thing and somewhat necessary for successful leadership. But what happens when it becomes the center of the conversation and crowds out other fundamental dimensions of leadership?

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