Intelligence and Virtue by Proxy

I just heard David Brooks, at the Commonwealth Club of California, quote President Obama saying, in private, something like “I’m a better speechwriter than any of my speechwriters, a better political analyst than my political director, and a better strategist than any of my strategy guys.” Brooks seemed to think this betokened a breath-taking lack of humility. Which maybe it did, except for the part about speechwriting, which I have no trouble believing. But it can also mean that Obama is missing out on one of the most important tasks of leadership—choosing sidekicks better than oneself at various particular duties.

Chicago’s current mayor started his political career as lead prosecutor for Cook County, thirty-odd years ago. I got to see him up close, on one of his community task forces, and gained considerable respect for him, because his advisers and assistants were all really smart and really good at what they did. All of them, almost certainly, were smarter than he was. Some of them, at least, were more ethical than he was. As a result, he did a really good job as prosecutor. (Once he became mayor, he shifted entirely out of that mode, probably because, since his father had been mayor before him for twenty-odd years, he figured he knew enough to run his own show. It has become increasingly apparent that he didn’t.)

If by some freak of fate I were to fall into high public office (or, I guess, high office of any kind), I would spend the first six months finding the best available people to back me up. If possible, I would want all of them to be smarter than I, and better at their particular jobs than I could possibly be at any of them. That, essentially, was what Franklin D. Roosevelt did, starting with his choice of wife. To a considerable extent, John F. Kennedy did too. A leader is the sum of his staff.

The average citizen, even a politically active citizen, is unlikely to be closely acquainted with her elected representatives in Congress and the Senate. But it’s pretty easy to get to know their assistants in the normal course of activism or business, and it is legitimate to form an opinion of their boss from that knowledge. For most of us, it is the only sensible way to form such an opinion. Certainly there is no point trying to know a politician from the version of his personality presented to the public by his handlers. The majority of our fellow citizens believe in voting for “the man [sic], not the party.” Since both the man and the party are artificial constructs, this guarantees that we will be fooled again and again. Get to know the candidate’s staff, her “people”, and you have a good chance of making good choices in the voting booth.

Jane Grey

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