We stand at a watershed moment in the annals of political leadership. If you believe the pundits, that is. To hear them tell it, not since Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and Franklin crossed quills at the Constitutional Convention have we seen such a confluence of greatness.
Time Magazine anointed Rudy Giuliani as its Person of the Year on the strength of his leadership following Sept. 11, calling him "masterful" and the "voice of America." And President Bush -- whose stratospheric poll numbers stem in no small part from having so completely surpassed the easily surpassable leadership expectations we had for him on Sept. 10 -- was hailed by the New York Times for his "steely resolve, imagination, leadership and creativity."
The cheerleading has been louder than the din at a Limp Bizkit concert. But these hyperbolic hosannas are, unfortunately, no substitute for a rebirth of modern political leadership, which, in fact, continues to wither on the vine.
"I just reflect the way they are," said Giuliani, crediting his highly effective post-Sept. 11 leadership style to the resilient spirit of the people of New York.
Fair enough. But leadership is not defined by the ability to merely reflect a consensus. Real leadership is about creating a popular consensus where none exists. It's one thing to ride the crest of a current crisis, and quite another to be able to look ahead and address the tough issues before they become crises.
And while Bush has certainly proven himself adept at moment-to-moment crisis management, rallying the country to unite and persevere in the face of terror and tragedy, he has yet to show any ability to rise to the looming crises bubbling beneath the 11-point headlines from ground zero and Tora Bora. He's nudged us back to our daily lives but doesn't seem to have given much thought to how those lives could be better. For far too many on the losing end of the new new economy, "getting back to normal" isn't such an inviting prospect.
Last year ended with 11.6 million children living in poverty, 40 million Americans without health insurance and 8.5 million Americans out of work, an increase of more than 800,000 since Sept. 11. And just how did our congressional leaders respond? Not by voting to increase unemployment benefits but by giving themselves a holiday stocking stuffer -- a $4,900 pay raise.
Despite the wellspring of patriotism and altruism that has accompanied the war on terror, no politician from either party is seizing the moment -- and the momentum -- to attack these homeland crises. Maybe when it comes to political leadership, nature doesn't abhor a vacuum, after all.
How else can we explain the depressing current leadership landscape? On the Democratic side, we have a plethora of presidential pretenders but no real leaders. It's as if their struggle to position themselves effectively for 2004 somehow prevented them from performing effectively in 2001.
No wonder the Republicans are having a hard time figuring out whom to target. With Al Gore in deep hibernation, apparently resigned to being little more than a footnote in those history books Bill Clinton seems so obsessed with rewriting, GOP strategists have decided to focus their fury on a minuscule target, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The only problem is, how do you demonize Wonder Bread?
It's laughable to watch the Republicans try to smear the mild-mannered Daschle by, among other things, running attack ads linking him to Saddam Hussein. What's next, TV spots showing Dick Gephardt morphing into Mullah Omar?
On the Republican side, the imminent retirement of Dick Armey (are we all counting the days?) and the zombielike persona of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (it only seems like he's retired), have left the House GOP leadership field free for Tom DeLay -- the Second Coming of Newt.
As both parties gear up for the midterm elections, it's clear that bipartisan unity has given way to win-at-all-costs politics as usual. The president signaled as much when he closed out 2001 by taking off the mask of unity he's been wearing since Sept. 11 and leading the partisan attack on Daschle and the Democrats for scuttling the stimulus bill.
Instead of dropping bombs on his political adversaries, President Bush would be better served focusing on the myriad domestic land mines that threaten our future. Uniting a citizenry against an external threat is one thing. Doing the same thing against less easily definable threats at home -- now that's true leadership.