Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fiorina, Haley, Whitman: The return of initiative and excellence

- for The Hill on 6/13/10

Possibly the pictures across the country are making a difference: Carly Fiorina, Nikki Haley, Meg Whitman. There is something about these women even from their pictures. Energy; positive, rising ambition. Their kung fu looks strong. They have an entirely different aura than Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. They are cheerful and like Taylor Swift, they are fearless.

Fiorina and Whitman carry about them a “true west” aspect. They speak to initiative, enterprise and self reliance, while Pelosi and Boxer are transplants from the Eastern cities and carry its burden. They only moved west for the view but they brought Brooklyn and South Boston and Fishtown with them.

Fiorina, Haley and Whitman bring a distinct generational shift; they are of a different culture. The political generations can be identified by buzz words. In the rising 1980s, the words were “leadership and excellence.” A best seller of the times, “In Search of Excellence” set the theme. The most progress and money made post-war was raised in that period; houses were built, families nurtured and the entrepreneurial spirit transformed America. But in time, the phrase “leadership and excellence” became so hackneyed that James A. Baker, Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush, rigged the White House computers so that the keyboard would balk when someone typed in the phrase.

In the 1990s, the post-war world consolidated and reinvested in itself. With the rise of the Clintons in the White House, the new phrase replacing “leadership and excellence” was “diversity and globalization.” But that age is yielding today as China looks inward, Canada and Israel begin to go their own ways, and border states in Central Asia like Kyrgyzstan ask Russia to come back in. It was a time of broadest unification and consolidation: Picture Paul McCartney singing “Hands across the waters” or a arena full of women and children holding candles and singing that Barry Manilow Coke song (“I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love . . . I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony . . . “) or a World Soccer Cup tournament; but not like the match in 1964 when 300 fans were killed in fights or the one in 1968 when 70 were beaten bloody and killed by thugs with clubs and bottles, one where everyone – winners, losers, terrorists – each gets his own little trophy.

But it was not a time of excellence. John Kenneth Galbraith called it a “Culture of Contentment.” It was the age of the G-7; the well-fed government and municipal worker, unionized and heavily pensionized, fat and happy with that totem animal of the horde, the penguin, idolized in a desk calendar and a Starbuck’s mocha double latte with extra foam in hand. It was a time when Presidential races resembled “American Idol.” When anyone could be Secretary of State or Vice President. When anyone could be President and it was un-American to think otherwise.

But quality and substance suffered. As President Obama is finding out in the BP Gulf disaster, eventually giving speeches literally from mountain tops is not enough and the country needs imagination and management.

Pretty soon we are going to need some new buzz words. The women rising now to new achievement in last week’s primary resemble the leaders of the earlier day; the bygone days of “leadership and excellence.” Politics, like electromagnetism, travels in peaks and troughs, the one an equal and opposite counterforce of the other. And we are turning now and beginning our ascent to another peak.