Celebrating great leadership

On Monday, February 19th, California and the nation give working people the day off, ostensibly to reflect upon and honor two great American leaders- George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In the context of the present day, it is almost ironic as we look at the greatest visionaries and leaders who lived so long ago and must consider what we have in our country today. From the greatest to arguably the worst in our history, with a little greatness but much mediocrity in-between. Washington to Bush? Heavens, how could we fall so far?
This was a question I posed directly to Doris Kearns Goodwin who happened to be speaking at UC Santa Barbara last week. She was speaking, as part of her national tour, on her insightful and inspiring novel,”Team of Rivals”, about Lincoln and his greatness as a leader. In this historical novel she talks about the qualities of leadership and compassion Lincoln brought to his position as leader of a nation and how he was able to bring out the best in those whose guidance and wisdom he sought while dealing with, arguably, the most challenging threat to the survival of America- the Civil War.

He was a man of knowledge, self-awareness and confidence. He was both well-read and well-respected. He was also a great listener, with a real understanding and appreciation of the long-term, indeed, historical significance of what he was doing. I asked Ms. Goodwin whether such a leader could rise to the top in today’s media driven and unseemly expensive election process where TV sound-bites based on money wins the day over substance and debate?
Unlike the treacherous and superficial landscape of politics today, Lincoln was not driven by campaign financing; nor by a desire to promote corporate profits over public good. He understood that when taking the reigns of leadership, the objective is to reflect the will of the people. After all, he is the one who committed , in his great Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 that
government of the people, by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Where have you gone, Abraham Lincoln? Our nation turns its saddened and cynical eyes to you. Today, on almost every level of government, but particularly in the White House that Lincoln once inhabited, we are governed and motivated by the greedy corporate interests that have paid so heavily for the current presidency and for which the American people have paid such a heavy price.
With election costs anticipated to reach the Billion dollar mark in 2008, the question cannot help but be asked:
Whose America can we expect to be represented in the years ahead? With the tens of millions that the insurance and financial industries, big land developers, healthcare giants, car manufacturers, oil and gas producers and refiners have put into our own Governor’s political coffers, whose interests are being represented in our own great state of California?
Bill Moyers, who has become among the most eloquent spokespeople on the moral imperatives and failures of our times, may have said it best in a recent speech in NYC (now making its rounds on You Tube), when he said,

We must confront the most fundamental progressive failure of the current era, the failure to embrace a moral vision of America based on a transcendent faith across racial and class lines that human beings are more than the sum of our economic appetites and that our country is more than an economic machine.”

At a time when the motivation for our country’s actions is driven by oil (Iraq and the Middle East) greed and corporate interests, we can only look longingly at an earlier era where democracy, freedom, opportunity and equality were the rallying cries and goals of the day. Is there another Lincoln on the horizon? Could another Lincoln emerge in this media-driven political world where substance is replaced by glitz and sound-bites; where we remember it is the People that make American great, not the multi-national, profit only corporations? Doris Kearns Goodwin wasn’t so sure—nor can we be, either.
Let’s take time to reflect on that over this holiday week-end. We must change how we deliver leadership in this country or our longings for the good old days may very well include a longing for real democracy itself.