Why Shouldn’t We Be President

In June of 2016, I left my job as CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit Leadership, handed the mantle to a much younger woman, and began my retirement.  I was 74.  The INP was on the verge of a major expansion – adding programs in New York and possibly Chicago among other cities –and although I found it all tremendously exciting, I didn’t want to lead that effort.  And I also didn’t see myself as the best person to do so.  .  Friends, family, and colleagues supported my decision as the right move at the right time.

With the debate over age and the presidency now raging, I find myself musing on the question of timing:  Why did I think it best to pass the torch?

The obvious answer was that I had grown old, that I wasn’t up to the task.  It was time for new ideas and new energy.  There’s some truth to the energy matter…less about ideas, since I still have lots of them. It seems to me, though, that it might be even more useful to turn our lens elsewhere: towards the differences between my successor, Yolanda Coentro, and me.  She’s a brilliant manager and leader, far more adept than I at building teams and operational systems, managing to strategy, and speaking to large audiences.  Even if I were 40, she’d be the right, and I the wrong, person to lead the INP at this phase of its development.

At the same time, I believe that, if I chose to, I’d still be entirely competent to begin new organizations, consult on strategic considerations with organizations ranging from startups to national corporations (which I have done in the past), or restart a psychotherapy practice.  In other words, the distinction between Yolanda and me might have more to do with temperament and skill than with age.

I’m getting irritated with people like Seth Moulton, who smugly talk about the need for new blood without saying what youth would add, what they would stand for, or what they can accomplish that old pros like Nancy Pelosi can’t.  Why wouldn’t a wise old head with lots of energy and experience fill the presidential leadership role as well or better than a young Turk?

The Nobel Prize winning scientist, Harold Varmus, quips that he doesn’t think  “anyone is competent to be president of the United States.”  There’s an impossible amount to learn.  Besides, if s/he’s over 70, there’s a 20% chance s/he’ll die in office.  That said, Varmus, who was born in 1939, served as the Director of the National Cancer Institute from 2010 to 2015.  You do the math.  “I’m still pretty good at learning new stuff,” he said.  As a matter of face, he believes that his judgment, writing ability, perspective, and temperament had all seemed to improve in his late 80’s.  So, yes, he figures that he could have responsibly taken on the presidency late in life.

You might say that Varmus is the exception, but that is precisely my point.  People vary so much, not just in their skills and temperament but also in how they age.  Years ago, Howard Gardner, wanting to break our society’s fixation on logical and verbal skills, insisted that there are many forms of intelligence, including musical, rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic.  Daniel Goleman has documented the importance of “emotional intelligence,” and Angela Duckworth, among many others, tell us that “grit” is as important as any other quality in predicting the success or failure of children — and adults.

Research has also provided a more textured idea of our cognitive ability as it evolves through a lifetime.  Raymond Cattell, for instance, juxtaposes two kinds of intelligence—“fluid” and “crystallized.”  “Fluid intelligence” is the ability to reason and solve novel problems, independent of accumulated knowledge.  This is the stuff of logical problem solving, as well as scientific, mathematical, and technical problem solving.  It is the form of intelligence tested by I.Q. exams and generally peaks in the twenties.

Crystallized intelligence is acquired through experience and education.  Another cognitive psychologist, Richard Nisbett, concludes that:

“…when it comes to intelligence, experience can outrun biology… Older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.”  Despite a decline in “fluid intelligence,” complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improves with age.”

I would add that our nation — perhaps all nations — has a narrow (and erroneous) idea about what kind of mind and temperament are best suited to leadership.  Generally we envision assertive, decisive men, preferably 6’1” or taller, able to stand strong and alone even when buffeted by setbacks and criticism.  That ideal is closer to Ayn Rand’s amoral bully than we’d like to think.  But great leadership comes with the ability to bring together people and resources in the service of objectives.  It is the achievement of shared objectives that we’re after, isn’t it?  And that requires a very different set of skills than the popular model, which imagining charisma to be the end all, envisions.

What if we assess our leaders on their ability to select and depend on others with greater expertise in specific arenas? to bring out the best in individuals and teams — like the Cabinet, for instance, or the Foreign Service?  These skills require considerable social-emotional intelligence as well as some humility. There’s no guarantee that older politicians, who have lived years with life’s complexities, will necessarily demonstrate this style of leadership. But I might bet on them first.

I’m not suggesting that older people are necessarily better at leadership.  Clearly there are virtues in both youth and age — and each person, each candidate needs to be evaluated not as a general phenomenon but as an individual.  We might associate youth with vigor, daring, and originality but, for example, which of the Democratic candidates now seems the most vigorous, creative, and mentally alive?  Whether you like her or not, you’d have to say it’s Elizabeth Warren.

What’s more, we shouldn’t have to guess so much about our politicians’ ability.  What if we figure out some of the basic qualities required of presidential leadership, like social-emotional intelligence, and the ability to both understand and act in large, complex systems, then require candidates to be tested before running for office.  For that matter, why don’t we require annual physical and cognitive exams for those in high office?  That way we might not be saddled with the Woodrow Wilson’s and Ronald Reagan’s of the world, whose mental infirmities were kept secret, their unelected proxies running the show.

I would like to see a much more nuanced discussion about age and presidential fitness and ability.  Before leaping to conclusions, let’s ask what set of abilities and attributes suit the job and, only then, decide who meets our criteria.

 

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Keeping the Faith

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun a discussion about politics, usually about Donald Trump and the enabling Senate, only to have friends say: “Please.  No more!  I can’t stand it!  I want to shut out all that noise so I can live my life.”

Often enough, they invoke the privilege—or the earned vulnerabilities—of age to shut off conversation.  Their arguments range from plaintive to enraged.  On the mild side, it might go like this: “I just want some peace in my old age.”  Some are more indignant: “I only have so much time left.  I’ll be damned if I’ll let that jerk dominate it.”

Almost everyone seems a little taken aback by my passion, and I’ll admit that I lack emotional distance when it comes to the high-jacking of my country by a narcissistic, greedy, ostentatious, ignorant, child who has the compassion of a stone and the inclinations of an autocrat.

My persistence seems to go against the cultural grain.  At my age, my observations and reactions should be leavened by my hard-won perspective.  “This too shall pass,” I should intone.  I should have turned my full attention to philosophical and spiritual pursuits.   Or to amusing myself. I should tend my garden and mind my own business.  What’s wrong with me?

The polling data are clear.  They tell us that, generally, the older you get, the more conservative you get.  Psychologists explain; We draw inward when we age: “…when people become more aware of their own mortality, they are more likely to engage in protective or defensive behavior.”

But, of course, I’m not a general idea.  I’m an individual and my mother’s son, to boot.  Let me give you just a tiny example of her spirit.  At the age of 87, in the middle stages of dementia, and imprisoned in a “memory unit,” my wife, Franny, said that she had to get home to vote.  “Is that jackass Bush still there?” she snorted.  There was no let up from her.  I loved it when Franny first told me the story and feel buoyed by it now.

In my family, politics defined character.  When my parents described someone, they would first say: “She’s Left” or “She’s Right.”  Not that the person was nice, generous, stingy, smart, talented.  The core of a person’s identity and values could be found in their political views.  If you were Right, you were probably selfish, unwilling to share the national largesse with the majority of people.  If you were Left, you were generous.  This language might have been cryptic to outsiders, but to us it was crystal clear.

I have gained some sophistication over the years, reading extensively in political theory and psychology, working with scores of people, sympathetically practicing therapy with every kind of person, and living through many decades; but, truth be told, just like political researchers tell us, I haven’t wandered very far from the proverbial family tree.

Politics was like religion in my family.  As deeply as some people held their belief in God and the prophets, my family worshiped our nation’s ringing declaration: “We hold these truths to be self evident:  that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”  We were patriots in that very literal way.

Admittedly, we practiced our patriotism in a form that others considered unpatriotic—we were socialists in the 1940’s and 1950’s, during the ‘red baiting’ fury of the McCarthy period.  We never doubted that ours was a truer representation of the American faith.  Others did. We were censored and ostracized.  But the experience of being outsiders simply fortified our commitment to “the Left.”  We would be damned before caving to the convenient and conventional views of the majority, whose interests, we believed, had been appropriated and then discarded by the 1%.

To this day, I have no inclination to grow mellow or to acquiesce to what we then called “the power elite.”  The idea that the Trumps and the Koch brothers and even Democratic-leaning bankers and hedge fund managers should tell us what’s best is no more palatable to me now than it was to my parents.  I’d prefer a rejuvenated labor movement and the continued growth of grass roots activities.

At times of upheaval or before then – when change is in the air – liberals invoke the curative effects of moderation and political centrism. Bill Clinton, for instance, is famous for, downplaying poverty and disparities of wealth, and the increasing corruption of our political system.  He helped to dismantle important parts of the welfare system. Democrats and Republican moderates have long soft-pedaled environmental degradation and other key issues of our time.  In other words, they sacrificed the greatest good of the greatest number for their own victories, and convinced enough people that they were right.   We the American people need to do better.  We need to risk defeat as we aspire to a better world.

There are a slew of contemporary politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and AOC, who will compromise on strategy but won’t readily compromise their core values.  And because of their utter sincerity, and the trustworthiness of their values, they may capture the American imagination more vividly than the appeasers.

I know that victory over Trump and his bigoted authoritarianism is paramount.  But isn’t it possible that those who sincerely stand for values, not just victory, stand a better chance of winning in 2020?

I know that people of my vintage tend towards moderation and what some would call wisdom.  But I don’t believe centrism is wisdom.  I believe that it is wiser and stronger to take a stand.  At this great historical crossroads, much like the times leading up to the Civil War, we will be measured—and need to measure ourselves—by our moral stamina.  So many of the people now in their 70’s stood up for Civil Rights and against the injustice of the Vietnam War.  Even as we worry about the costs of retirement, even as we want quiet and calm, we must stand again.

As I look back over my years and over our history, it is clear to me that wisdom doesn’t always trend towards moderation.  Sometimes it trends towards a stark, clear, and immoderate vision of doing the right thing.  Now is one of those times.

 

What my mom taught me about politics

There’s a photograph of my mother that I treasure.  She’s in the middle of a crowd of friends, clearly on a protest march.  A poster tells in large gold letters against a black background, that she is marching with the Gray Panthers.  She’s smiling and waving, clearly relishing the moment. I would guess that she was about 75 when the picture was taken.  And it captures the pleasure she took throughout her long life in joining with others to stand for justice and against the cruelty of unhearing power.

This January, there was a march protesting Trump’s already abusive presidency.  Hundreds of thousands stood tall and proud on the Boston Common. There’s a photo of Franny and me, cheering with the crowd, listening to Elizabeth Warren and others articulate the need for economic and educational justice in our country. I liked that picture very much, just as my mother liked her Gray Panther photo.  My mother and I have both loved standing with fellow travelers.  We have kept a flame of hope alive, despite all the discouraging things that we’ve also seen.
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It’s only a few months later.  I’m 75 now; and I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep fueling the kind of hopefulness that my mother and I have shared.  Every day I scour the newspaper, looking for news that will bring down President Trump, even though I imagine that a Pence presidency might be worse.  (He wouldn’t be so incompetent, and he would be better aligned with Congressional Republicans.)  Trump is mean and bigoted and ignorant, and he was elected by American voters.  I ask:  Is this really my president?

Over 150 years ago, Henry Adams, struggling to understand the strange new theory of evolution, wondered: How could it be that Alexander the Great had conquered half the known world by 336 BC while the current leader of the United States of America was Ulysses S. Grant?  I have a comparable query: If, under the leadership of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and two Roosevelts, we have been trying to realize American ideals for almost 250 years, how can we have come to this moment?  And given that we have, how can we still believe in human progress?

I’m not thinking about political theory.  I was wondering about whether I, like my mother, who had endured Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, could sustain my hopes for a better world.  It is possible that Trump will be the last president I will observe closely.  I will be 79 at the end of his current term and 83 if he is re-elected.  This may be the last Congress that I pay attention to, and they are the most ideologically rigid and mean spirited I have known.  And this Supreme Court, already prepared to undermine so many of the civil rights and other progressive laws that have been built over the last century, will only get worse once Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Stephen Beyer resign, as undoubtedly they soon will.

I find it exhausting to follow a current political scene that is dominated by the likes of Trump, Kushner and Bannon, McConnell and Ryan, Alito, Roberts, Thomas, and Gorsuch.  Yet I read on like an addict, hating each new informational fix but needing it, too, and unable to turn away.  The craving for a moment of hope comes each morning with the newspaper, each evening with Rachel Maddow, and throughout the day on Politico, Slate, and the Washington Post.

The news wears me down.  These days, I sometimes wish I didn’t care so much.  I don’t want Trump to invade my moods, my sense of efficacy, my feeling of pride in having lived a good life.  When I pay attention to this man, with his vulgarity and narcissism and mean-spirited combativeness, this man who represents almost all that I dislike most, I get angry.  I feel futile. I understand that 38% of the people still approve of the job he is doing and seem to prefer him; and I am shocked that the persistent strength of their support may overcome our efforts to overthrow his terrible regime.

As in addiction, I have my momentary highs—the Russian probe is growing; the healthcare bill might not pass; there is hope for a Democratic surge in the 2018 elections.  But the highs are regularly followed by a dispiriting thought: These people are sticking around; they will continue to damage our country.

Then I awaken the next morning, hoping again—or vowing not to watch the news, not to let it dominate my thoughts, promising to rid myself of that addictive, toxic brew.  I have my ways.  I’ll go for a few days avoiding the news.  I’ll focus on the good that’s happening in my family and among my friends.  I’ll meditate and practice not reacting to bad news, fake news, or any other kind of news.

Long term, though, I will need a deeper solution. Here’s what I’m thinking about.  I will have to let go of the idealism, passed like mother’s milk, from childhood. I will have to admit to myself that we don’t always make progress, and that people aren’t always good…even underneath, in their heart of hearts.  Some may be every bit as selfish, tribal, easily frightened and angry as others are decent and altruistic.  Maybe we won’t find solutions to poverty, addiction, and war.  Maybe we—or I—will have to build my political ideas on a much more realistic foundation.

After all, the Founding Fathers did so.  The Constitutional democracy they constructed, with all of its checks and balances, was built to protect democracy from the profound flaws of our of the human species.  They would probably say that my hope that we would become better and better over time was utopian.  In this light, I can place my hope, not in the President and his programs but in the checks and balances that may preserve the foundations of Constitutional democracy.

I may have to shift my focus, too.  All my life, my emotional well-being has depended a good deal on the state of the nation and the world.  It may be better to shift my attention even more to family and friends, and to the nonprofits and local governments that do good work in communities that are nearby.

However reasonable, these changes would feel as though I am betraying, my mother and myself, abandoning the whole tradition of progressive and idealistic politics that has provided me with a sense of purpose and belonging.  It would feel like I am leaving a far more cynical world behind me.

Upon further reflection, though, I can’t permit myself that level of pessimism.  I might move towards a more realistic perspective but I can’t let go my hope for a better world, even if it comes long after I am alive to see it.

I remind myself that, not too long ago (1992), Francis Fukuyama argued that there are no longer viable alternatives to liberal democratic systems married to a regulated form of free-market capitalism.  Judging by the rise of Trumpian America, Orban in Hungary, Brexit in Britain, and the rebirth of Russian autocracy and imperialism under Putin, Fukuyama was overly optimistic.  The world can turn rapidly.  To me, that also means that it can also turn back in the positive direction, driven by the seeds that people like my mother and others have planted.  Even if I don’t see the fruits of those seeds, they are worth feeding.

For now, then, I’d like to share a Talmudic tale, Honi and the Carob Tree, because it speaks eloquently to this theme.

Honi the Wise One was also known as Honi the Circle Maker. By drawing a circle and stepping inside of it, he would recite special prayers for rain, sometimes even argue with God during a drought, and the rains would come. He was, indeed, a miracle maker. As wise as he was, Honi sometimes saw something that puzzled him. Then he would ask questions so he could unravel the mystery.

One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree.

Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

The man replied, “Seventy years.”

Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”

The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”