David Foster Wallace on Reagan, Kennedy, and Leadership

by Justin

In response to yesterday’s ramble about Obama’s shortcomings and what he stands to learn from the skills of Reagan, a friend (and dedicated opponent of all things Reagan) sent me some selections from David Foster Wallace.

The catch here is that I’m madly in love with most everything he writes, reluctant to disagree with his opinions in the way the parishoners are with their priest. Not at all that extreme, actually, but I have great faith in his ability to think deeply and with great devotion to truth. So I’m inclined to set my prejudice aside and let his thoughts work on me. Miss E. Leas sent this selection to me, out-of-control capitalization her own:

“SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE THAT PRESIDENT RONALD W. REAGAN (1981-89) WAS OUR LAST REAL LEADER. BUT NOT MANY OF THEM ARE YOUNG VOTERS. EVEN IN THE 80S, MOST YOUNGER AMERICANS, WHO COULD SMELL A MARKETER A MILE AWAY, KNEW THAT WHAT REAGAN REALLY WAS WAS A GREAT SALESMAN. WHAT HE WAS SELLING WAS THE IDEA OF HIMSELF AS A LEADER. AND IF YOURE UNDER, SAY, 35, THIS IS WHAT PRETTY MUCH EVERY US PRESIDENT YOUVE GROWN UP WITH HAS BEEN: A VERY TALENTED SALESMAN, SURROUNDED BY SMART, EXPENSIVE POLITICAL STRATEGISTS AND MEDIA CONSULTANTS AND SPINMASTERS WHO MANAGER HIS ‘CAMPAIGN’ (AS IN ALSO ‘ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN’ ) AND HELP HIM SELL US ON THE IDEA THAT ITS IN OUR INTERESTS TO VOTE FOR HIM. BUT THE REAL INTERESTS THAT DROVE THESE GUYS WERE THEIR OWN. “

I only partially agree. One, whatever his shortcomings (many and terrible), I don’t believe that Reagan ever needed to work much to convince people of his leadership. He won the elections and then did as he saw best – I don’t see a thread in his speeches that suggests he was worried much about people trusting his judgment. He was, instead, confident. And that played a lot better. Wallace is right, though, stating that Reagan was a great salesman and seldom in favor with the younger and more thoughtful Americans. But that has less to do with a phony, transparent sales pitch and more to do with the product he was hocking.

What I mean is that a lot of time, dreamy bits about the shimmering beacon of freedom invested in each of us aside, President Reagan sounded like some sort of dinosaur. Too entrenched in religion, too naive about economics, too old and certain for liberals and progressives. Excepting the Cold War, his presidential legacy is one of damaging domestic policy. The fact is, the product he sold didn’t vibe with the deepest parts of Americans once they started to think about it. When I listened to his speeches my immediate reaction was to embrace everything. Then I’d think about the content, even review the written text, and discover how much I fundamentally disagree with it. But the sales pitch was oh-so-right, oh-so-heartfelt.

It’s the reverse for Obama. He’s got spectacular products to sell – great ways in which the quality of life will improve for Americans and the world at large. He is, whatever the Tea Party says, a champion of the people. But who even knows that? I get all the words and all the specific details, but none of the beauty and rallying that I want from a leader – I’d like to be swept up in the moment and then do the questioning. Another bit from David Foster Wallace on leadership:

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, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.

The great leader of the 20th Century, Adolf Hitler, could motivate an entire country to perpetrate some of the worst atrocities ever – at great cost to themselves and considerable efforts. This is the old great and terrible combo, though. Wallace is talking about a greatness linked to fundamental ideals of liberty and justice. A greatness that aspires to more universal truths than hate could ever attempt. And so to Kennedy:

Probably the last real leader we had as a US president was JFK, 40 years ago. It’s not that Kennedy was a better human being than the seven presidents we’ve had since: we know he lied about his WWII record, and had spooky mob ties, and screwed around more in the White House than poor old Clinton could ever dream of. But JFK had that special leader-type magic, and when he said things like ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’ nobody rolled their eyes or saw it as just a clever line. Instead, a lot of them felt inspired. And the decade that followed, however fucked up it was in other ways, saw millions of Young Voters devote themselves to social and political causes that had nothing to do with getting a plum jb or owning expensive stuff or finding the best parties; and the 60s were, by most accounts, a generally cleaner and happier time than now. It’s worth considering why.”

JFK is well loved and long-missed by pretty much every member of the previous generation I’ve ever talked to. He wasn’t in office all that long but he understood the heart of America and didn’t have dinosaur values to diminish his aims. He was a visionary with that magical something that gifted him the ability to sell the visions – more accurately, to communicate them in such a way that disagreeing was difficult. People wanted to get on board.

I’ve often talked down the pride and pomp of ’60s protesters who seem to think more of their influence than is at all accurate. I’m aware that this has more to do with a disagreement with my mother about her particular role than with protests at large, but it holds some credence. More important than the immediate effect on politics was the general spirit of giving-a-shit. Our generation has it more and more – in reaction to George W. Bush’s slug trail and in excitement about the potential wrapped up in Obama. We’re also seeing the undeniable planet-destroying effects of an industry owned congress. The 86 day spill in the Gulf of Mexico will hopefully be the straw to break the rising generation’s backs. I used to say things like, ‘Well of course they were activists in the 60s! Look at the demons facing them, the atrocities being committed and the need to stand up!’ As though we didn’t have the same demons and worse breathing on our neck today.

So as an addendum to yesterday’s post: Obama should study Kennedy more than Reagan. I’m pretty sure that our current president doesn’t have that magical something, as much as the campaign led us to believe. But if he could inspire us then, why can’t he do a better job now with real enemies of liberty infesting Washington and legislation designed to help the masses?

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