Columns 2007

I miss having real leaders

PBS recently ran a special on The Sixties. For my generation at this point, that could refer to age as well as a specific time period. So I should clarify that in this case, it had nothing to do with the need for calcium supplements. It was about the decade that will forever define my generation, no matter what else we may accomplish.

Being a typical, self-absorbed, over indulged member of that generation, I settled into my recliner, unwrapped my calcium chews, and settled in for what I thought would be a pleasant romp down memory lane.  Yes, I was actually one of those hippies who surrounded the Pentagon in the fall of ‘67, chanting “Ohm” in the belief that it would cause the building to levitate and all the bad spirits would fall out.  Ah youth! 

But the journey turned out to not be as much fun as expected because every time music started playing that caused me to sway to its beat, a tragedy would intervene.  When we remember the sixties, we tend to remember the dancing, free love and belief we could change the world by wearing serapes with bellbottoms and wishing everyone peace and love.  We try to forget the part where Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy get killed; where entire city centers go up in flames; where Mayor Daley showed how close to fascism this country could get when frightened about losing control.  We don’t want to remember when our classmates and friends came back from war broken in mind and spirit, or just came back in boxes. Those are things we’d prefer to forget.  In our memories, we are forever wearing flowers on our heads and beads around our necks with pot smoke swirling in the air while we shout, “Hey! Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”

I found tears uncontrollably streaming down my face as I listened to Martin Luther King, Jr. give an extemporaneous speech the night before he died. The tears continued as the scene in California unfolded and Bobby Kennedy once more lay on the floor with blood streaming from his head. It took me a moment to realize that I wasn’t so much crying over their deaths as I was over what those deaths meant. 

These were leaders who dreamed big dreams and then pulled us into their vision through the sheer force of their personality and passion. These were not the political leaders of today who first take a poll to find out what Americans want and then craft a message that purports to give it to us. These were people who did not feel it was as important to give America what it wanted as it was to show us their vision of a better America and then make us want it too.  They didn’t kiss our butts. Instead, they challenged us to get off of them and make our country a better place.

I miss having a leader who makes me want to be a better person than I am.  I’m tired of leaders who cater to the lowest possible denominator.  Has someone blown up towers in New York? Don’t worry. Be happy. Go shopping.  Spend money. That’ll show them they haven’t defeated us.

Leaders who only give us what the polls say we want scare me. We are the people who made pet rocks and monster truck rallies popular.  We are the people who watch programs like “Bridezillas” and “The Jerry Springer Show” in large enough numbers to bring them back for multiple seasons. For god’s sake, we tuned in to Paris Hilton’s court proceedings! Who in their right mind would try to lead us where we claimed we wanted to go in view of this stark evidence of regular national insanity?

Yes, we want leaders who hear what we have to say. But don’t we also want leaders who will appeal to our better selves? Leaders who will challenge us to look outside our comfort zone in an effort to make our world a better place? Is it easier, in the end, to honor Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. as martyrs than it would have been to work with them to achieve their vision?

Maybe those tears I was shedding were not only for the lost promise of those great leaders, but also for the void that still exists in the leadership of this nation. We need heroes. We need visionary leaders. We’ve got politicians.