Talk about flashbacks. I immediately thought of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial in which I served as an advisor to the prosecution. I remember what started out as the chance to showcase to the world how justice could be served by the sequential and orderly presentation of indisputable evidence turned by mid-trial into anything but that. Somewhere along the way justice and rationality got lost in the daily salvos that Marcia Clark et al and Johnnie Cochran and friends launched at each other. Just when it looked like one side was on the ropes, they bounced back in a way that made you think, "Well maybe what they just said was possible."
Back and forth and then back and forth again. By the time the trial was over, you just wanted it to be over. Despite the ordeal of watching it, Los Angeles and much of the country, if not the world, stood transfixed reading newspapers and starting at televisions like people rubbernecking at the side of multi-vehicle car crash. You wanted to look away, but couldn't. By the end, justice had long been replaced by just wondering who was going to win and who was going to lose.
Fast forward to Election 2008. Hillary Clinton as the annoying, aggravating, unrelenting, "nails on a chalkboard" and oblivious-to-her-substance-obliterating-style Marcia Clark. Barack Obama as the mellifluous, velvet toned, easy to listen to but occasionally gaff laden and factually (or at least experience) insubstantial Johnnie Cochran.
Are we witnessing or at least experiencing a similar phenomena? If so, what was the lesson that O.J. taught us and the one the current campaign is trying to teach us? I would posit it is that when you are in thrall to your emotions, you need to resist with all your strength throwing logic and common sense under the bus, where they become casualties.
To carry the analogy one step further, what is at risk in Election 2008? What corresponds to the desire for justice, following Rodney King, that was in short supply in 1994-97 that fell completely through the cracks? The answer is leadership. As we head towards November, 2008 there is a widespread perception that America is either being misled or at the very least is lacking leadership. If one of the measures of effective leadership is how committed the followers are and you match that against the current approval of President Bush (72 % disapproval for 4/2-4/6/08), you get a sense of just how much leadership is wanting.
Clark and Cochran may have been as much victims and extensions as they were causes of the public's emotional state of mind during the mid- 1990's. And perhaps it's just as likely that Clinton and Obama are extensions or an expression of the current American psyche. Whatever the truth, the American psyche is every day looking to leadership to solve the problems of a war without end, the upside down economy, health care reform, education to enable America to compete globally, etc. and unfortunately for which there are no simple, easy answers (something that the public doesn't take too kindly).
If hindsight is 20:20 and the lesson from the Simpson trial was to keep our eye on the prize of justice and to forcibly push aside anything that would detract from it, the lesson for Obama, Clinton and McCain is to keep their eye on the leadership that this country sorely needs and is desperate for.
The foundation of that leadership rest on three key abilities. First, the ability to see and articulate a clear, compelling and convincing vision that all of this country will want to be a part of. Second, the ability to identify and recruit the talent to turn that vision into a reality. Third, the ability to engage that talent so they will do it.
The greatest problem for all three candidates is the lack of that front end vision. In its place is an opportunity for each of them to reach the pinnacle of their political careers. But an opportunity for each of them professionally does not a vision for all of us to embrace make. In the 1930's we had the New Deal; in the 1940's we had defeating he evil Nazis; in the 1950's it was living the American dream after the war and being safe through the Cold War; in the 1960's it was putting a man on the moon and after that it becomes a little iffy and to this day, that lack of vision is something we all ache for. After 9/11 the reaction to retaliate and defend our country against terrorism was temporarily a shared vision, but the war has continued without a clear end in sight or even a clear notion that Iraq was the enemy we should be fighting.
I don't know what that vision would be, I just know that our next President needs to know.
(c) 2008 Mark Goulston