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.

If You Remember Nothing Else

January 19, 2009

lasanthaLasantha Wickrematunga

A Sri Lankan journalist is dead, in what appears to be a classic political hit job. Three days before his assassination he wrote his own obituary, which accuses the government of responsibility and searches for meaning in his life and probable death.  The Sunday Leader, the aptly-named paper he edited, published his extraordinary reflections, which are worth reading.  Thank you, Louise, for sharing them.

The story is as familiar as it is wrenching. The cost of an abbreviated life, of any life and of this life. The wife and children left behind. A man killed for his testimony, small t, for bearing witness to the failings of the governing class. 

His departing hope is that the “human spirit will endure and flourish” and overcome the political impulse to contain it. This dream is also familiar. Most political movements begin as journeys towards dignity not dominance. Rosa was tired of sitting in the back of the bus.

But the human spirit is messy. All that enduring and flourishing can be decidedly inconvenient to those in charge, and a classic path to oppression and worse begins by shaving a dimension or two off the humanity of opponents.

We are much easier to manage in this reduced form.  Once we’re corralled into some kind of “other” category, once our many human qualities get boiled down to one – to our link to the other party, religion, ethnicity – we’re easier to push around. We’re easier to blame, easier to deny access and rights, easier to assassinate. This voice from the grave spoke directly to those on the receiving end of the dehumanizing backlash of power:

“If you remember nothing else, let it be this: the Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled.”

He understood how radical it was to see the full humanity of the people he served.  We often struggle to define the essence of leadership, but that may be it. 

Unsolicited Advice for Secretary Clinton

January 17, 2009


  1. Keep an eye on that Chavez guy. He’s getting poorer and more desperate.
  2. Curb the addiction to polls. If you get tempted to relapse, remember how the whole campaign theme song vote turned out.
  3. Build on W’s momentum in Africa.
  4. Yes, leverage your own celebrity, and remember the celebrity of others. Angelina matters. Bono matters (see #3).
  5. Consult Bill. Deploy Bill. Bring Chelsea.
  6. Don’t let the neocons completely discredit “nation-building.” The development and prosperity of poor countries is in the strategic interest of the U.S.
  7. Don’t let us give up on peace in the Middle East. We need to believe.
  8. Your speech in Beijing on women’s rights changed the world. Keep human rights at the center of your personal agenda.
  9. Model the values we’re so hungry for right now — grace, optimism, excellence.
  10. The whole world wants you to succeed in this job. Be unapologetic.

Lessons from a Teenage Lincoln

January 13, 2009


My great concern is not whether you have failed, 

but whether you are content with your failure. 

– Abraham Lincoln

Like everyone else trolling for insight into the President-Elect’s political brain, I am joining the District of Columbia in brushing up on my Lincoln studies, starting with David Herbert Donald’s magnificent biography. Obama has made it clear that Abe tops his list of political mentors. Resurrecting the Team of Rivals is likely just the beginning. 

Lincoln the man has captivated the country since his improbable arrival on the national stage, for obvious reasons. Among his strengths was a remarkable ability to unleash the talent of other people, an ability that few other people with oval or any-other-shape offices have been able to match, and one that’s rising on the list of leadership essentials. Gone are the days when we could rely on a few wise men for national renewal, if we ever really could. Leadership today is a burden of the many. 

Lincoln the boy, I’m discovering, also has a surprising amount to teach us. Lincoln failed early and often and sometimes dramatically. As the life coaching industry has trumpeted for years, he stumbled painfully in business, politics and love. He had a difficult relationship with his father and fought his way through severe bouts of depression.

A widely circulated summary of his road to the White House looks something like this:

  • 1831-Lost job
  • 1832-Defeated in run for Illinois State Legislature
  • 1833-Failed in business
  • 1834-Elected to Illinois State Legislature
  • 1835-Love of his life died
  • 1836-Nervous breakdown
  • 1839-Defeated in run for Illinois House Speaker
  • 1843-Defeated in run for nomination for U.S. Congress
  • 1846-Elected to U.S. Congress
  • 1848-Lost re-nomination
  • 1849-Rejected for land officer position
  • 1854-Defeated in run for U.S. Senate
  • 1856-Defeated in run for nomination for Vice President
  • 1858-Defeated in second run for U.S. Senate
  • 1860-Elected President

Donald’s Lincoln prepares for this run by learning how to fail at a young age. He learns how to lose gracefully, to pull the insight out of setbacks, to start over without dragging too much of the past with him. He refuses to let failure cripple him, and he refuses to let his shortcomings reduce his extraordinary ambition. Young Abraham is a winner, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.  It’s a rare marriage of humility and audacity.  

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.


Unsolicited Advice for Rick Warren

January 2, 2009

Obama and Warren

  1. Your generosity of spirit betrays your divisive posturing — be who you are.
  2. We all have small and large versions of ourselves. Rise to the size of your growing platform.
  3. Eat right and exercise. You can be a righteous force in the world if you stick around for a while.
  4. Love your neighbor as yourself.
  5. I am a gay woman, with a wife and child to protect from the politics of fear you used to undermine my family’s citizenship and dignity — and even I respond to your core decency. There’s something there.
  6. Make my son proud to be part of your America on January 20th.
  7. Believe the hype — the world is hanging on your words right now. We will move on, but you have our attention for the moment. Honor it.
  8. Do not bear false witness. Unless you really can’t distinguish between gay marriage and pedophilia, this one may be the most helpful.
  9. Gay people don’t eat donuts. Consider building bridges with scones next time, maybe a nice fruit plate, cocktails.
  10. Ask yourself what would Jesus do.