Ron Chernow as guest speaker at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner

Last night was the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Now, if you haven’t watched this annual event before then you should know that the the guest speaker is usually a comedian who roasts the President, his administration, the media, and any other opportune target in the audience. In the past, when we had a President with a sense of humor, humility, and the ability to laugh at himself, the President would actually take the podium and make fun of himself, his administration, and, yes, take humorous jabs at the media. It’s all in good fun. The whole idea is to celebrate our nation’s constitutional protections of a free press and its function of ensuring our political leaders are held accountable.

As I said, typically the guest speaker is a comedian, but after last year’s speaker pushed the limit, it was decided to tame it down a bit. Last night’s guest speaker (video below) was the biographer and historian Ron Chernow. If you haven’t read any of Ron’s books, let me recommend his biography on Alexander Hamilton. A superb book that was the inspiration for the awarding winning broadway musical, Hamilton. Ron’s most recent biography is on Ulysses Grant, which is the inspiration for a new movie (in production) about Grant, reportedly being directed by Steven Spielberg.

I must admit when I originally heard Ron Chernow had been chosen as the guest speaker, I thought “Well, that’s a very tall order for a scholar to deliver on. They’re not usually funny people.” I mean a historian taking the slot reserved for a professional comedian? I had heard Ron Chernow discussing his books and answering questions about them, and he is a good speaker for the most part, but as the primary guest speaker at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner? I was struggling even if a side of me thought it was a good turn.

Anyway, Ron was indeed far more tame. But I must say he acquitted himself quite well in my opinion. He did provide some humorous and well delivered and deserved jabs at the current administration. Had he not, to be sure, it would have been far too great a retreat from the spirit of the freedoms being celebrated by the event. Ron found that fine balance between pure joke and the jokingly serious. It was, in the best of ways, an instructive and entertaining speech. Ron showed intelligence, grace, wit, humor, and humility. All qualities that are sorely lacking on Capitol Hill and especially at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Watch the speech:

I’m a morning person

Starbucks (Photo by Jeff Wills)

Good morning.

Ahhh, my early morning view from the table of a local Starbucks.

It’s rare that I sleep in or get up after, say, 7 a.m. This is true even on my days off. This morning I was up and out the door at around 5:30 a.m. For decades now I’ve been getting up at zero dark thirty for work and the habit has become too ingrained in my soul to break, at least for now. And the truth is I love the early morning hours. It’s the best time of day I like to say. I’m very much “a morning person” as my wife likes to remind me; she also likes to reminds me, often, that she is not.

I can remember as a little boy going for early morning walks with my grandmother. I recall once asking her why she was usually up so early walking, and she reminded me “Son, the longest thing you’re ever going to do is sleep.” Even at that very young age, I got the point.

And so it is on these early mornings, when most people are still asleep, I sit and read, write some, and ponder various ideas and questions in peace and quiet. I realize it’s not for everyone…and that’s just fine by me.

“Patriotism means to stand by the country”

Certainly a quote with special resonance at this time in our nation’s history.

Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.

― Theodore Roosevelt

DFW on Leadership

Years ago I came across these words about leadership while reading David Foster Wallace’s (DFW) piece on John McCain’s 2000 Presidential campaign bid. They’re part of a superb essay DFW wrote for Rolling Stone called The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub.

Along with some other quotes by various writers, I’ve had DFW’s thoughts on leadership displayed in my office for years now. I don’t recall DFW writing about leadership anywhere else in his work, at least not directly, but as a literary artist he had that natural gift for description. I think this is one of the better, more accurate assessments of how many of us think of real leadership.

For those who’d prefer to hear a reading of this short piece, I’ve included a Soundcloud audio by Debbie Millman.

It is just about impossible to talk about the really important stuff in politics without using terms that have become such awful clichés they make your eyes glaze over and are hard to even hear. One such term is “leader,” which all the big candidates use all the time — as in e.g. “providing leadership,” “a proven leader,” “a new leader for a new century,” etc. — and have reduced to such a platitude that it’s hard to try to think about what “leader” really means and whether indeed what today’s Young Voters want is a leader. The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. Thank about it. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.

Folger Park

Folger Park, Washington D.C. (Photo by Jeff Wills)

It was a quiet day on Capitol Hill because the federal government was closed.

I got out and about this morning to take in the calm and peace and silence the snow delivers.

It was about 8:30 this morning when I took this snapshot at Folger Park.