Transformational Leadership

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 09/13/06

I’m not ready to follow Nicco Mele to John McCain’s campaign — mostly because I don’t think in today’s political climate I could support an avowed anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage Republican for 2008.  But I don’t agree with Atrios that Nicco is a “wanker” for following his principles onto the Straight Talk Express.

Admittedly, I can’t really fathom Nicco’s reasons for going with McCain, which seem to boil down in his post on the subject to “I like Sen. McCain – I think he should be president!”  (Rick Klau seems to think that it’s about campaign finance reform.)  But to me, McCain’s appeal to people who don’t share his political views or party affiliation stems from one simple fact: McCain, unlike almost any other living American politician, is a transformational leader.

Before I was a Deaniac, I was a McCainiac.  A teenager in search of heroes, I listened on a homemade crystal radio to the only station I could get, the one that carried Rush Limbaugh, and revel in the smackdowns Rush was getting from newspapers and his own listeners over his attacks on McCain.  I combed newsmagazines in doctor’s offices for references to the Arizona senator’s candidacy.  I wrote poems extolling the virtues of McCain the father figure.  I was in love.

But even then, I saw the serious flaws with McCain.  I knew he had voted to impeach President Clinton for sleeping with an intern, which was a huge deal for me back then.  I knew he was involved with the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal that forced four other Senators to retire.  I didn’t like the fact that he’d been in the military, which was supposed to be his chief campaign selling point.  I didn’t like a single policy proposal of McCain’s more than I liked those of Bill Bradley and Al Gore, both of whom I really liked as well.

What was it about McCain that moved me to support to the point of obsession a man with whom I hardly agreed on anything?  I liked his comparatively moderate tax cut proposal, his staunch environmentalism, his courage in standing up for campaign-finance reform, his belief (or so we thought then) in international diplomacy.  I was attracted to his attacks on the Religious Right and his underdog status.  But it was more than that.  Just what, exactly, I couldn’t say — but it had something to do with his mantra, “A cause greater than oneself“.

I’m reading Chris Jones’ recent McCain article in Esquire.  You’ve heard of it: it’s the infamous dog shit article.  But surprisingly, given what Matt Stoller had to say about Jones, I find the last part of the article extremely compelling.  Jones gets it; he gets what it is about McCain that makes Americans from all walks of life forget about their issues, their affiliations, and band together in support of a common goal:

And when it [Washington, D.C.]forgets, too, about South Carolina, forgets about that moment when everything fell apart: not for McCain’s presidential aspirations alone, but also for the country, as though now, over meat loaf and mashed potatoes, 1999 seems the last best time. Because by 2000—by South Carolina, by Michigan, by Arizona—we had already started playing Right versus Left, red state versus blue state, Rush Limbaugh versus Al Franken, the Minutemen versus the Dixie Chicks, Roe Again versus Wade Again, the church versus the state, “Mission Accomplished” versus Abu Ghraib, the Homeland versus the Constitution, Liberty University versus the New School, us versus them, us versus us. John McCain knows this, knows that his reputation was born just when some vital part of the country died, and now we are nearing the days when he must risk it all over again and hope that this time around the finish is different—different for him, different for America. He fears that time is running out for both. He knows that already it may be too late for him, for his wrecked and aging body, and, in his more pessimistic moments, possibly too late for the country. Even to consider running, to do for two years what he has done for the past few days, he must continue to believe that he’s the one man who can save us. That’s why John McCain would like to tell you a story—and why he would like for you to listen to it—his story of countrymen and friendship, of reconciliation with David Ifshin and with Vietnam, the country that saw to it that he would never again be able to comb his own hair, and he would like to tell you that all wounds can heal, that all memories can be made good, and that every state can be New Hampshire, in the middle of summer, enjoying an ice-cream social with Senator John McCain. And because of who he is—or perhaps because he is saying exactly what you need to hear—you’re inclined to believe him and to believe that he’s correct.

This is what McCain provides us as a people: the kind of inspiration that makes people leave themselves for a higher cause, that gives them hope and motivation and giddy bliss all rolled up in one presidential package.  It’s the highest possible calling of presidential politics — and McCain stands alone among 2008 hopefuls in practicing it.

Demagoguery?  No — demagogues, like Huey Long, appeal to our selfish interest (“Share the Wealth” being only a little more intelligent than Gene Talmadge‘s “Sure I stole, but I stole for you”).  Transformational leaders, like Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, appeal to our better, not our baser, natures.  They induce us to fight for “a cause greater than ourselves,” to help others at our own expense, to dream big and act big, to have hope in the future of the world.  And John McCain understands this — his transformational leadership is conscious, calculated, and orchestrated with brilliant grace.

As progressives, many of us are fed up with the sort of incremental change personified by the Clinton administration.  We want to see revolutionary change, culture-altering change.  Yet we often find the American populace lagging behind us, wedded to the status quo, clinging to moderation or tradition where we see only possibility.

History teaches us that transformational leadership is the only way to break down a people’s innate resistance to change.  As progressives, a transformational leader is our only vehicle toward enacting our issues as law — issues that we know are right, but that the majority of Americans are afraid of — issues like gay marriage, like exceedingly strict environmental regulations, like public financing of campaigns.  That’s how we get these things passed — by making people believe in our leadership as a cause greater than themselves, by making them abandon their self-interest in favor of the national interest.

Now, my brain tells me that McCain is no longer a moderate, but is in bed with the very ultraconservatives that defeated him in the 2000 primary.  My brain tells me that McCain is anti-choice, anti-gay, and by association anti-environment.  Most importantly, my brain tells me that McCain is that unforgivable thing, a charlatan, a man who consistently repostures himself for maximum political gain.

But my heart tells me something else: that whoever McCain himself is, his candidacy is a symbol of something great in American culture: the cause greater than oneself, the “self-interest rightly understood” of Tocqueville, the “Ask what you can do for your country” of Ted Sorensen.  McCain may be a phony, a fraud, and a Republican, but his candidacy is the real deal — the ideal to which Dean aspired with “The Great American Restoration,” which Obama briefly reached with “The Audacity of Hope”.  Obama, by the way, is the only figure I see striving for this kind of transformational leadership on the Democratic side of the aisle.  His recent spat with McCain, entirely and ludicrously initiated by the Republican senator, was nothing less than one transformational leader chastising another treading on his territory. 

Sentiments like Obama’s (due out in book form next month) are rare in the Democratic party.  And therein lies the problem.  Except for Obama, Democrats are ceding transformational leadership outright to McCain — and those of us who value transformational leadership for its own sake, for what it does to a people and a nation, are left wondering just when our John McCain will appear.

In a future diary: more historical evidence for the importance of transformational leadership, including details on the Wilson connection.

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