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.
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. Think 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.
I thought about it more than a couple of times, but I never went to visit him. He lived not too far from me. But I felt his privacy was more important than me wanting a picture with Mr. Baker. By the time I’d come to admire Russell Baker’s work he’d long since been out of the public eye and it had been over a decade or more since Baker published a book. I guess I felt the likely-hood of Baker having fans show up at his door was pretty darn low. In fact, very few people I knew had heard of him. So maybe he’d welcome the reminder that there were still many great admirers of his masterly pen. But still, it didn’t feel right and I wasn’t about to bother him in his retirement.
I discovered the writings of Russell Baker, I’m guessing, about 15 or so years ago. I was reading another book called Clear and Simple as the Truth, written by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner. That book was a fascinating analysis of style in writing and instruction in how you develop a particular style of writing they called Classic Style. It was a style I’d recognized and admired in the writings of authors like Mark Twain and John Keegan.
Thomas and Turner had provided examples of Classic Style in their book, but there weren’t any examples (as I recall) of more recent biographies or autobiographies written in Classic Style. So I emailed Mark Turner and asked him if he would recommend some authors and titles. Turner emailed me back a small list. I don’t recall any of the others on the list, but Russell Baker was one of the names Turner provided. And so I picked up a Copy of Baker’s 1983 pulitzer prize winning memoir Growing Up.
The memoir is a lovely and hauntingly moving story of Baker’s “growing up” years during the Depression era. It’s a story that began to take root in Baker’s mind many years later while he was visiting his dying mother at the hospital. Senility had taken hold of her mind. As he sat looking at this woman who’d made him so much of what he was, he began thinking about the distance between them and about her life and what went into the making of her and him:
Sitting at her bedside, forever out of touch with her, I wondered about my own children, and children in general, and about the disconnections between children and parents that prevent them from knowing each other. Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them.
The above paragraph is underlined in my copy. I’ve had similar thoughts floating around in my mind about my parents over the years, and as a veteran parent myself, I’ve wondered if one day my boys might experience this same curiosity about me and my wife before it’s too late to know. Most children don’t experience this deep curiosity about their parents; not because they don’t care, but more from the fact that life is too busy and the past is, well, past.
But like Baker, I think exploring and understanding the past and where we came from is a form of connecting (or reconnecting) with those people and things and events that shaped us for better or worse. I’m one of those who still stops the car, when back home visiting, to take pictures of the homes I grew up in and some of the other memorable places of my childhood and teenage years. Nostalgia is the rust of memory it’s been said, and I’ve always had a good bit of the rust. I started this blog in partial hope of leaving behind for my kids something of myself beyond what little material things I might pass on, so that one day, maybe, if my kids become interested in their dad’s personal history this blog might be of some help.
“We all come from the past, and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.”
Baker wrote a sequel to Growing Up called The Good Times (1989). Baker began his career as a reporter in Baltimore and achieved his fame, and his first pulitzer prize, writing his observer column (1962 – 1998) for the New York Times. He published about a half-a-dozen or so other books…all of which I have a copy of with underlinings throughout.
Russell Baker passed away at his home in Leesburg, Virginia, on January 21st. He was 93.
Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla) is co-sponsoring legislation that would make all members of congress forgo their pay checks during a government shutdown. Please note that government shutdowns are now used as a legislative bargaining tool. It seems very irresponsible, reckless, and cruel to me, but that’s where we’re at in this country right now.
On the surface the forgo pay legislation seems like a very fair idea. In theory, this legislation should ensure all members of congress are feeling the same pains and pressures as those government workers not getting paid or those citizens losing services during a government shutdown. In theory that seems very fair. But that’s not how this will work in practice. All members of Congress will not face the same personal effects of not getting paid.
But what about those members of congress who do?—who like the vast and overwhelming majority of Americans do need their salary to survive? These members, who’s lives and daily concerns are much closer to the average American’s, without their salary, may start to feel personal pressures about legislation and the need to make concessions that rich members of congress don’t and never will feel. So why should wealthy members of congress, regardless of party, have yet another (among the so many already) method of influence over legislation and legislators that favors wealthy interests? At the national level our government is already a well entrenched business plutocracy. Shouldn’t we be trying to weaken this, not strengthen it?
In the millionaire’s club one doesn’t care about the piddly little salary the government pays you, one cares about power—again, Rick Scott was able to spend $64 million dollars of his own money on his own Senate election and not because he wanted or needed that congressional salary, I can assure you. So why, I ask, should we give an already powerful group another legislative tool of power and influence?