We start with the president’s dreadful numbers. People in politics in America are too impressed by polls, of course, and talk about them too much. In this we’re like a neurotic patient who constantly, compulsively takes his own temperature. We are political hypochondriacs. But polls offer the only hard quick data there is, and when the temperature-taking consistently shows a worsening condition—the fever is not breaking but rising—you have to admit a sickness. And so the polls, the most striking of which this week was CBS’s, which says only 13% of Americans feel President Obama’s economic plans have helped them. After all the money he and Congress have spent, you’d think it would be twice that.
Oh, let’s not do polls, they all say what they said months ago: Mr. Obama is down. Here I write not of something people dislike—the administration and, by the way, the Republicans—but of something I think they want, may even deep down long for. By they I mean me. But I don’t think I’m alone.
All right, you know what I think people miss when they look at Washington and our political leadership? They miss old and august. They miss wise and weathered. They miss the presence of bruised and battered veterans of life who’ve absorbed its facts and lived to tell the tale.
This is a nation—a world—badly in need of adult supervision. In the 50th anniversary commentary this week of Harper Lee’s masterpiece, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” a book long derided as middlebrow by middlebrows, no one fully noted the centrality, the cosmic force, that propelled the book, and that is the idea of the father. Of the human longing to be safe and watched over by one stronger. And so we have the wise and grounded Atticus Finch, who understands the world and pursues justice anyway, and who can be relied upon. “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” That’s the last sentence. Ms. Lee was some kind of genius to throw the ball that soft, and that hard.
Mr. Obama is young, 48, as is British Prime Minister David Cameron (43), with whom he meets next week, and as were Bill Clinton (46 on Inauguration Day) and the somewhat older but still distressingly young George W. Bush, sworn in at 54. Mr. Cameron’s partner in governance, Nicholas Clegg, is also 43. Stephen Harper of Canada is 51, Nicolas Sarkozy of France a youthful 55.
Youth is supposed to bring vigor and vision. In general, however, I think we find in our modern political figures that what it really brings is need—for greatness, to be transformative, to leave a legacy. Such clamorous needs! How very boring they are, how puny and small, but how huge in their consequences.
What Mr. Obama needed the past 18 months was a wise man—more on that later—to offer counsel and perspective, a guy who just by walking into the room brings historical context. “Mr. President, the whole nation’s worried about this thing and you’re worried about that thing. They’re thinking money, and you’re thinking health care. Stop that, focus like a laser beam on the economy.” “My friend, you’re gonna get a win on this stimulus thing in the House, and you’re gonna do it without one Republican vote. That’s gonna make you feel good—flexing the muscle. But it’s gonna hurt you long-term. You need bipartisan cover or people will think you’re radical. Whatever you gotta do to get some Republicans on board you do it, bow to what they need. Don’t worry about your left, where they gonna go? Left attacks you, center’ll like you more.”
I know, “the wise men” are dead. Vietnam killed them. They were the last casualties, pushed off the roof with the helicopters. Their counsel on Vietnam was not good. But we learned the wrong lesson. We should have learned, “Wise men can be wrong, listen close and weigh all data.” Instead we learned, “Never listen to wise men,” and “Only the young and sparkling, not enthralled by the past, can lead us.”
We like youth because we liked John F. Kennedy, 43 when he was inaugurated. That’s when the presidential youth cult began. But he himself often relied on the old. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, the only world leader Kennedy turned to almost daily and confided in was Britain’s 68-year-old prime minister, Harold Macmillan, a veteran of World War I who’d seen the end of empires. President Kennedy had 11 months before he lost the counsel of his father, debilitated by a stroke. Macmillan was a father figure, and a good one—wry, pragmatic, sly when necessary, alive to human sentiment. When asked by ferocious young conservatives why he couldn’t get tough with the coal miners, he explained he’d been in the trenches with them, gone over the top with them. Margaret Thatcher came along soon enough with the needed toughness. It all worked out. Anyway, JFK knew to look to the deeply experienced and mature, which was important for him because he wasn’t the former or always the latter.
But here’s the thing. You have to look hard for wise men. They’re not all over the place anymore. There’s kind of an emerging mentoring gap going on in America right now. You can see it in a generalized absence of the wise old politician/lawyer/leader/editor who helps the young along, who teaches them the ropes and ways and traditions of a craft.
You walk into the offices of a great corporation now, look around and think: Where are the grown-ups?
The grown-ups took the buyout. The grown-ups were laid off. The grown-ups are not there. A few weeks ago in Connecticut there was a dinner to mark the retirement of the heads of a half dozen local hospitals. They did a video. It turned out most of them, unknown to their coworkers, were military veterans. This was the Vietnam generation leaving the room after effortful, successful careers. They were such smart guys! They knew so much. I wanted to say, Don’t go! “Shane, come back, Shane.” Stay by the bedside, Atticus. See us through this thing.
On Wall Street the concept of the statesman—the wealthy man who after a storied career enters public service and takes tough, risky stands on public policy issues—seems largely a thing of the past. In journalism the effects of cutbacks and lack of mentoring are showing their face, and will continue to. Maybe we’ll see it most dramatically when the lone person on the overnight news desk, aged 28, in a cavernous room with marks on the industrial carpet from where the desks used to be, gets the first word of the next, possibly successful terror event. On the Internet, you read the fierce posts of political and ideological writers and wonder, Why do so many young bloggers sound like hyenas laughing in the dark? Maybe it’s because there’s no old hand at the next desk to turn and say, “Son, being an enraged, profane, unmoderated, unmediated, hit-loving, trash-talking rage monkey is no way to go through life.”
Back to the political scene. Who might benefit from a real, if not consciously felt, longing for the old, tried and true? Not a Facebook jockey twittering from deepest cyberspace. A frank, unshowy Sen. Tom Coburn? Gov. Haley Barbour, an old-style, gray-haired, shrewd-eyed southerner? Maybe Mitch Daniels, who is, as they say, an old person’s idea of a young man. He has the style of a lovely normal boring person. Boring: that looks so good right now. Old, that looks so fresh, so new.