Rick Steps Up, Caroline Steps Down

January 23, 2009

It’s been an important few days. Let’s revisit two key protagonists, Rick Warren and Caroline Kennedy.

Caroline has exited, with varying amounts of grace, depending on which version of the story you believe. She decided this was not her moment, likely at the urging of a governor who is very sensitive to not being treated like one. Paterson was the wrong guy to try to push around with an inevitability narrative. He and/or she made the right call, and I hope this is the beginning, not the end, of a more public career for her. The world is hungry for role models of smart, strong women who can compete and win on their ideas and talent. I think she has it in her, and now we may find out.

Rick rose to occasion. He spoke with a degree of humility he rarely reveals in his public persona, and his passion for the moment electrified the crowd. He used his controversial platform to clarify that “we are Americans, united not by race, or religion, or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all.” He asked for forgiveness “when we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve,” and for “a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ.”

His message moved me on the deepest level, and I was not the only one holding back tears in a packed auditorium in the People’s Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He lost a few people with the overtly Christian Lord’s Prayer, but his personal framing of the prayer and his overall message of inclusion invited the crowd to give him the benefit of the doubt. He seemed like an altered man to me, and I hope that this is the version of him that emerges from this controversy. Like I said, he could be a truly righteous force in the world.

Oh, and we have a new president, who in an instant may have healed the nation’s deepest wound and created a sense of possibility on a global scale. Not bad for a few days.

On Caroline

January 9, 2009



It’s not easy to jump into the public leadership game. It’s arguably even harder for women and other “diverse” leaders, or for anyone carrying the burden of a spotlight they didn’t earn. Most political children go quietly into the political night, despite our fixation on the high-profile exceptions. The easy choice for Caroline Kennedy was to continue to live the relatively safe and private life she had created for herself.

But instead she’s going for it. She’s ready to risk the “dust and sweat and blood” that Teddy Roosevelt so admired, even as the wealth and prestige of his own family kept his political bloodletting to a minimum. She’s ready to rumble, to demand attention in a macho culture of ruthless self-promotion — and has staked out a platform that includes marriage equality, to boot.

I should be cheering her on, I tell myself, and yet I’m overwhelmed by ambivalence. Maureen Dowd challenged us to own the double standard this week (we could stomach W, but not a W who is also “smart, cultivated, serious”?) and lose the fantasy that the U.S. Congress has ever been a meritocracy. Her points are fair, and my ambivalence grows.

Part of it is this moment, certainly, where competence should be king. We may have pulled off the American experiment to date without tapping the best public servants in the land, but the complexity of our current challenges suggests it’s time for a new HR strategy. We can’t afford to give anyone extra points for celebrity (paging Dr. Gupta). Not anymore. We need public leaders with the capacity to lead.

But there’s something else going on for me. Aspiring politicians climb into Teddy’s dusty arena every day, bringing enormous differences in fair and “unfair” advantages. I’m at peace with it. We have revealed little interest as a society in trying to even this playing field. Public financing of elections, for example, is unlikely to ever happen, even though it means that Steve Forbes gets to run for any office he chooses. If you want to play this game and weren’t born into a family with enough political and financial capital, you have to figure it out. No one really holds it against John McCain that he married into the chance to become a Congressman. It’s certainly the path of least resistance.

The difference is this:  whatever advantages these competitors brought to the game, at some point they had to play it. They had to find a way to win hearts and minds and votes — and, yes, sometimes glad-hand, backstab and logroll along the way. But Caroline is not asking to play. She’s asking to win without playing. And it means that other dust-covered and bloodied public servants will not have this chance to use their substantial political skill for greater impact. I understand why it makes sense for Caroline and why it may make sense for the state of New York, but I’m finding it hard to get the pom-poms out.