The elusive myth of leadership

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By Shane Dingman

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard,” John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Houston, Texas, September 12, 1962.

Jack Kennedy was a corrupt womanizer whose father bought his presidency, not to mention a virulent opportunist who condoned and sponsored assassination attempts on foreign leaders. He hid a debilitating disease from the public and relied on regular amphetamine shots merely to function. His brinksmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis was an elaborate fraud to convince the public that he was a strong leader, while the real negotiations were conducted via a sleazy back channel. He publicly denied that he made a bargain to avoid nuclear war, while in reality his administration traded American missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba. All of these allegations are supported in journalist Seymour M. Hersh’s stunning biography, The Dark Side of Camelot.

And yet for all of this, Kennedy is still seen as a paragon of leadership, the great man, America’s last idealist. Worse yet, we doubly lament his brother Bobby Kennedy, a vicious thug who protected his brother’s worst excesses, because he never had the chance to lead America.

Throughout the history of democracy, there has been a tension between good governance and strong leadership. While these notions can exist within one person simultaneously, far too often we must choose a candidate with an abundance of one and a dearth of the other. The danger for democrats started around the middle of the last century, when television distorted our consciousness. Television made good governance irrelevant while at the same time it grossly inflated the value of strong leadership. Demagogues read much better over TB than reasonable men and women.

John Ralston Saul, one half of Canada’s vice-regal couple, was a political thinker before he became a political symbol. He noticed the false mythology of the hero was wreaking havoc on our ability to humanize our elites. Pierre Elliot Trudeau was not the first raucous populist to use all the tools of modernity to achieve political success in Canada — that honour goes to the inimitable John Diefenbaker — he was merely the best.

Our current prime minister isn’t a populist in the traditional sense; he mostly benefits from a lack of credible alternatives. Still the folksy little guy from Shawinigan uses the myth of the dedicated public servant who stands because no one else can do it, not because of his overarching ambition to place himself in the electoral history books. Does it really benefit Canada’s polity for Chretien to emulate his hero Laurier with four straight governments? The answer, by now, should be self-evident. Beware.

I know I tend to bash television, but because television spends so much time doing harm to the fabric of our society. Take the Enron example. Here’s a company built by CNBC and other cable news channels with a focus on the markets. The stock valuation of Enron was pumped by the sales pitches, and the grinning teleprompter readers didn’t have the minds or the bones to take down their funky assertions. Ken Lay was a leader all right, straight into the maw of gaping financial hell. His pitch was so seductive to investors and takeover targets that no one bothered to check the fundamentals.

Another strange thing about demagogues is that they tend to use the power of empty rhetoric to cover up their cinematic weaknesses. I’m sure you’ve noticed that on television and movies people of low moral character are short, ugly, accented, or in possession of some other physical quirk. Call it a peculiar trait of the Western World, but height and looks connect to coolness in a way that is obvious to anyone in the music business. Nobody cares too much about hit pop ballads sung by hideous hags; instead they end up writing stuff for hotties like Jewel or (shudder) Nelly Furtado. And so demagogues have to overcome the fact that they are, on the whole, short ambitious toads with little about them that is personally endearing.

Just look at Dubya, who is a short little guy with a serious paunch and a bald patch. He looks all leaderly with his pursed lips and his overblown “axis of evil,” never mind that he delivered a budget that had a large deficit. Did we forget that as the Republican “pro-business,” candidate he was supposed to expand the U.S. economy, not drag it down with federal deficits?

Which brings me to Captain Claude, pronounced like “toad,” not “clawed.” The Ryerson Faculty Association has serious concerns with his commitment to the conditions of his contract extension, which he received in 1998. RyeSAC thinks he has acted to create a culture of paranoia and fear in the administration that precludes them from bargaining in good faith on just about any issue. The deans are running scared trying to figure out how to avoid an arbitrary axe while he trumpets the successes of building more classrooms, which he will fill with students the university isn’t receiving provincial funding for. He is the classic mythical leader who commands with a weird charisma and boardroom slickness.

And you, the students, have to face this unrepentant freak as he casually contemplates raising your tuition to record levels. At what point does the community say “enough”? At what point is it time to drag down the false idol of Claude’s leadership?

A tidbit: In British Columbia, ridings can vote to recall their MLAs if they think they were elected on false promises. This action is being contemplated as Gordon Campbell’s Liberals slash the public sector to ribbons, which they certainly did not promise to do. This is called a vote of no confidence.

Beware Claude.

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