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Political Leadership Is More Than Just Talk

We are sadly lacking in political leadership as a nation, and last night's State of the Union message with its surrounding antics was no exception.

The only political leadership I saw displayed was the silent appearance of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Az) as she came to the floor of the House of Representatives to tender her resignation this morning. Giffords, who notified her constituents by video over the weekend, left her post with the same dignity she brought to it when she occupied it. Although she said nothing, her decision to step down said it all.

She knows she can't truly serve her constituents. She actually respects them. So she resigned. She will focus on her recovery, she says, and then she will come back. She didn't grandstand by making a big public announcement first; as an Arizonan, I learned about her impending resignation in an email that went to residents.

That is true leadership. Clearly, she's not a politician who values the position more than the people. She leads by example.

Contrast Giffords' performance with President Obama's State of the Union address and the circus that surrounded it. Lots of language, and little meaning.

Instead, every formal participant took the obvious set of facts—high unemployment, a slow-growing economy, and a continued real estate crisis —and laid his own partisan spin on it. By the end of the evening, the facts had disappeared into a morass of language that could have been generated by pollsters on either side using an algorithmic phrase generator.

First Mitt Romney issued a "pre-buttal," which accused Obama of "high unemployment and record home foreclosures.  Debt that’s too high and opportunities that are too few.  This is the real state of our union.  But you won’t hear stories like these in President Obama’s address tonight.  The unemployed don’t get invitations to sit with the First Lady."

(Never mind that 4 million jobs were lost in the six months BEFORE Obama took office, and that the housing crisis began in the Bush era, if not before.)

Then came Obama's speech : We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits… It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts.

(Never mind that later in the speech he takes credit for bailing out the auto industry, which he said has created 160,000 jobs.)

The evening was wrapped by Mitch Daniels' formal rebuttal, which promised "As Republicans our first concern is for those waiting tonight to begin or resume the climb up life's ladder. We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have nots; we must always be a nation of haves and soon to haves."

(Never mind that the Democrats also say they stand for the same equality of opportunity.)

While each party takes credit and lays blame for the same things in the same language, a silent woman who nearly died and can still walk and speak only with difficulty demonstrates the best way to show concern for voters: not by grandstanding, but by truly communicating. As they say in writing classes, "show, don't tell."

Gabrielle Giffords, unlike our economy or our verbose leaders, is truly "built to last."


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  • Edward Brown

    The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon Debates ushered in an era of politics that has
    transformed how politics plays in the media as well as how public policy
    is formulated. The emergence of candidate-centered politics made
    individual personalities as important, if not more, than policy
    platforms. Eminent sociologist Max Weber transformed the concept of
    charisma from its religious origins to its secular manifestations.
    Weber asserted that charismatic personalities gained power and
    significance through sheer will, determination and ambition contrary to
    inheriting or climbing the corporate hierarchy (Weber 1978). His notion
    of Charismatic Authority was prescient in that this leadership model
    would find a place within modern politics.

    The Celebrity Industrial
    Complex (Orth 2004)turned celebrities into politicians and politicians
    into celebrities, which allowed California governor Arnold
    Schwarzenegger to go from film star to governor without any political
    experience or political platform. The objectivity of the media became
    skewed, because journalists either fawned over charismatic politicians
    or were self-conscious about seeming overly positive when a charismatic
    politician connected with the public viscerally. The effectiveness of
    proposed public policy considerations were no longer vetted or mulled
    over, but presented to the public as "focus group" to determine its
    acceptance. How the proposed initiative resonated in the media would
    determine how hard politicians fought for legislative passage. Media
    objectivity has also been called into question when it has to juggle its
    role as public "truth provider" versus for-profit corporation.
    Arguably, the media has often opted for the latter with the notion, "If
    it bleeds, it leads." The bloodletting could be literal or metaphorical.

    Edward Brown
    Core Edge Image & Charisma Institute


    Orth, M.
    (2004). The importance of being Famous: Behind the scenes of the
    celebrity-industrial complex. New York. Henry Holt & Co., LLC.

    Weber, M. (1978). Weber: Selections in translations. Runciman, W. (Ed.). United Kingdom. Cambridge. Press.