Sunday, May 3, 2009

Leadership: Self-righteousness and Self-doubt

I was surprised by how focused I was last week on Arlen Specter's decision to bolt the Republican Party and join the Democrats. Why should anyone care?

Part of my response was simply personal. I still cling to my identity as a liberal Republican, a choice I made fifty years ago. Specter is "nice Jewish boy" like me, who has used the Republican Party and been used and abused by it for most of his adult life. His abrupt departure makes the already thin ranks of socially-liberal, fiscally conservative Republicans even smaller. I feel lonely.

But this process has been going on for decades. Back in early 1972, when I was a three-term Massachusetts state legislator contemplating running for Congress, I received a surprising phone call from then-Congresswoman Margaret Heckler, asking me to come to her home in Wellesley for a cup of coffee. (Heckler later was US Secretary of Health and Human Services, after she was defeated for re-election in 1982 by Barney Frank.) She and I had known each other casually as fellow elected Massachusetts Republicans. Our only real engagement had come when she was on the Platform Committee for the Republican National Convention in 1968 and I had tried in several uncomfortable conversations to convince her that a Republican perspective on abortion would be to emphasize individual freedom of choice and that public policy decisions, if they are to be made, should be left to the states rather than the national government. (She didn't buy either argument.)

Over coffee that morning at her house, Heckler tried to persuade me not to run for Congress. She said, "You know me well enough, Marty, to know that I am not all that liberal in my views. But even so, I am almost a pariah in the Republican Party in Congress. My Fellow Republicans ignore me, dismiss me, and ostracize me. I feel very isolated. Are you sure you want to be a part of that environment?"

She was no more successful in persuading me not to run that I was in changing her position on abortion. I have often wondered what would have happened if I had won that race.

(I ran and lost. Some Republican stalwarts put a very conservative independent candidate into the race so that even though I held the incumbent to less than 50%, the third candidate siphoned off enough voters from me to end my electoral career. 1972 was a pretty ugly year for Republicans in Massachusetts. As fellow political junkies may recall, Massachusetts was the only state that George McGovern carried against Richard Nixon in the Presidential race and I was the only Republican candidate for Congress in the whole country who ran ahead of the national ticket and lost, and I ran 20 points ahead of the ticket!).

Despite holding onto to my Republican affiliation even as that part of my life fades deeply into obscurity, the Spector defection also raised less personal issues for me.

Specter's reasons for becoming a Democrat are pretty straightforward. His own polling showed that it would be almost impossible for him to beat former Republican Congressman Pat Toomey in the Pennsylvania Republican primary next year. By switching his allegiance, he may give the Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-vote count in the Senate, so he was probably able to extract a pretty good welcoming deal from Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama. Good for Specter.

But he must have made a calculation that his own political survival, keeping his Senate seat, was more important to him than fighting within the Republican Party for the values he has espoused all his political life. He was self-righteous and arrogant not to risk his own power on behalf of those values.

Survival is a wonderful instinct. Specter is a cancer survivor as well as a political survivor. But with five terms already under his belt in the US Senate, having just turned 79 years old, you would think he would be willing to go down in history fighting for what he believed in, rather than being remembered mostly for a politically expedient party switch.

Leadership is risky. Leadership involves taking risks on behalf of Purpose and not about individual aggrandizement. Leadership is about embodying enduring values, putting in jeopardy your own personal ambition.

I became a Republican in part (there are lots of reasons, but that's another blog post) because I could not identify with the smug liberals at college, who were so sure they were right about everything that they ridiculed other people's perspectives and were completely closed to learning. They were the least open, the least tolerant people I knew. I agreed with where they came down on many if not most of the issues, but I was racked with self-doubt where they had none, and I wanted to be with people who were continuing to search, rather than those who had already found the holy grail.

It is a paradox of leadership: you have to be completely committed to what you are doing in order to step out there and take the risks, but at the same time, with equal persistence, you have to hang on to self-doubt, always keeping open the possibility that there is a better idea out there. Otherwise, how can you ever learn and grow?

But, then again, I might be wrong about that.

10 comments:

Alphonzo said...

I invite Mr. Spector to the other party. Maybe as a member on the front line he can forget the problems of the past. Focus on having total information, detailed and assurance that this administration will provide a combination of strategic resources that assist the world in thinking better and feeling proud. Again!

Less Emotion, More Strategy.

max said...

this reminds me a bit of folks who go into finance with the the explicit plan of only working long enough to make enough cash to comfortably spend their time doing what they really want with their lives—teaching or writing screenplays or whatnot. usually, the prediction is 3-5 years. i know a handful of people who made that pledge, and only one has followed through—the rest grew too accustomed to the life to give it up.

of course, a lot of those people have had to give it up anyway in the last six months.

Brad said...

There really is no political party today that represents those of us who are fiscal conservatives but social liberals. Spector could have exercised true leadership by becoming an independent and organizing with Joe Lieberman to form the nucleus of such a party!

jeffrey697 said...

As always, I enjoyed reading your post. I recall you saying, “All conflict is a distraction… and war is the ultimate distraction.” Now, I have to wonder – we are in the midst of fighting several wars. While our military is fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, our government is fighting corporate excesses, our populous is fighting government waste, the Democrats are fighting the Republicans and the Republicans are fighting the Democrats. Diplomats are fighting nuclear proliferation, while special interest groups are waging battles within the arenas of abortion, socialized medicine, campaign finance reform, energy conservation, illegal immigration, and gay marriage. All sides are expending vast amounts of energy, money, and other potentially valuable resources on personal attacks, political spin, and the smooth articulation of “talking points.” Yet I have to wonder as we talk about self-righteousness within the context of leadership – is anyone else so concerned about the lack of open, honest, and substantive debate on all “sides” of these issues? It’s enough to make one’s head spin.

We are stronger when we express divergent thought… and it takes guts to express one’s ideas (especially when these views are unpopular), yet there seems to be a vacuum of constructive dialog in our society. In my rather short 36 years on this planet, I have seen what appears to me to be a digression our social consciousness. Public officials almost universally espouse the need for “transparency” and yet there is a distinct void in terms of how information is made available to the public… if it is released at all. When people in positions of formal leadership violate trust, they make a non-apology, wait six-months, sign a book deal and enjoy the fruits of their misguided self-righteous behavior. It is as if we’ve become cynical enough not to manifest the outrage that once may have burned within our souls during a time when we were not all so punch drunk with the perpetual conflict that surrounds us. Is that the plan here? Have those with privilege come to understand that the more we are inundated with conflict, the greater our appetite and apathy toward self-righteous behavior?

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts about this.

Take care,

Jeff

Diane said...

Today has been a day of self-doubt in the midst of change. Reading this post places our local dilemmas in a larger context -- yet the dilemma's are similar--self preservation or a larger purpose or something in between? Media, for all of its benefits, seems to give much attention to the former, rather than the later. Leaders for the larger purpose, for the end in mind, for that which endures beyond their service, do we value these leaders much anymore?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Marty. As a moderate to liberal elected Republican, I have been in elective office for nearly 20 years. In those 20 years I have seen a major increase in intolerance, in the inability to see other's opinions as valid, and a belief that the next hot-button red-meat issue will be the margin of victory.

We now have two Republicans in Congress from the Northeast. What a sad development after the years of great leadership from the likes of John Chafee, Bill Weld, and the like.

In Rhode Island there are now only two elected Republican Mayors. There are fewer that a dozen in the General Assembly. With no farm team, where are we to go?

Marty Linsky said...

Lots of interesting stuff here. Thinking about what the Specter defection represents about the state of politics and political dialogue. Obama has certainly set a different tone, but I wonder whether he is willing to play hardball with, for example, the Democrats in Congress or the State of Israel. Being the unBush is not enough to make progress on the tough issues. On the issue of self-doubt, I don't think we have every valued that in politicians or CEOs or parents or anyone else in positions of authority.

Katherine said...

Marty,
I'm fascinated by your description of why you became Republican - because you were disenchanted with the smugness and close-mindedness of your liberal Democratic colleagues. President Bush's time at the helm certainly stripped the Republican Party of those worthy characteristics! It seems to me that the Democratic Party is the one associated with tolerance and open-mindednes today.

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