Saturday, June 12, 2010

The return of initiative and excellence

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

They bring a distinct generational shift; these women are of a different class and are generally speaking women of a different age and education. The political generations can be identified by buzz works as well as personalities. In the rising 1980s, the words “leadership and excellence” were used. A best seller of the times was “In Search of Excellence.” It was a good run; 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 all ages arc and as Kris Kristofferson said, the going up is worth the coming down. 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 Eastern Europe ask Russia to come back in. It was a time of a kind of broadest unification and consolidation: Picture Paul McCartney singing “Hands across the waters” (or a World Soccer Cup tournament; one where everyone – winners, losers, terrorists – each gets his own little trophy), but it was not a time of excellence. Liberal icon John Kenneth Galbraith called it a “Culture of Contentment.” It was the age of the G-7; the well fed government worker, unionized and heavily pensionized, fat and happy with a Starbuck’s mocha double latte with extra foam in hand. It was and is a time when anyone could be a college president. Anyone could be Secretary of State or Vice President, 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 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 to ascend to another peak.