The Bill Clinton fiasco marks the beginning of the end of the current version of democratic leadership and not a minute too soon.
Worldwide, the leaders at the turn of the 20th century mostly consisted of monarchs or colonial appointees. Two wars and television later, leadership became a cunning combination of ambition, Madison Avenue packaging and media manipulation. Once in power, leaders and their aides attempted to remain popular by using photo opportunities, media shmoozing and soundings from Gallup.
The enormously successful Bill Clinton was simply the latest and greatest of these manipulators. He groomed himself for the top job for years. He cultivated powerful allies, worked on his elocution and married a brilliant and equally ambitious political operative.
Like most “leaders,” he cynically migrated from one set of beliefs to another for political expediency. Before his first election as president, he hid his support for the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement when polls showed most people were against it. Once comfortably in office, he became an ardent free trader.
Over the years, Clinton and his minions have followed the personality popularity polls closely. They were masterful in their management of the media, which, until recently, adored and protected him. The few media whistle-blowers that came along were promptly shunned. Where were the venerable New York Times and Washington Post when it came to exposing this man’s fundamental dishonesty and conduct unbecoming the president of the United States? Where were the Republicans? It took a lowly Internet “publisher,” Matt Drudge, to expose publicly the President’s sexual problems.
Until the scandal broke into the open, the public, borrowing opinions from the media, loved Clinton, too. He was the consummate 20th century leader. A gifted speaker with charm and awesome intellect, he was easily packaged and sold. Now, thanks to the Kenneth Starr impeachment report, the world knows differently. He is a deeply flawed human being.
Nobody’s perfect, but Clinton’s disorders disqualify him as presidential or leadership material. It would seem, tragically, that he never rose above his background. The unfortunate truth in his case is: you could take the boy out of the trailer park, but you couldn’t take the trailer park out of the boy. Bill Clinton, for all his IQ and charm, is the victim of a dysfunctional upbringing. For this, we should all have compassion. But we should not confer power.
His Arkansas childhood was blighted by poverty, divorce and alcoholism. His behavior—a secret life, denial and dishonesty— is what alcoholism and other addictions are all about. While there is no evidence of alcohol abuse by Clinton, the President is what’s
Clinton’s tragedy: you could take the boy out of the trailer park, but you couldn’t take the trailer park out of the boy
known, in Alcoholics Anonymous terminology, as a “dry drunk.” This is a person who does not abuse alcohol, but embodies all the negative characteristics of an alcoholic.
This personality disorder helps explain why Clinton recklessly carried on with women, then baldly lied about the latest, Monica Lewinsky, on national television in January. He also stood by as others, including his closest aides and wife, defended his lies. Once caught, he went on national television without a proper apology, then lashed out at the special prosecutor even though his confession validated Starr’s efforts. More denial.
The sham of modern leadership was further epitomized with the “superpower” summit earlier this month between Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. There was the U.S. President trekking off to pose as the leader of the Western world when he must have known he was about to be exposed as a philanderer who lied for months about his sexual escapades with a young woman who arrived at the White House as a 21-year-old intern. His party was about to orphan him and make him a lame-duck leader.
Fittingly, his Moscow counterpart’s biggest health problem is his consumption of alcohol. As with Clinton’s sexual pathology, stories about Yeltsin’s drunkenness, including at state functions, have been rampant for years in media and diplomatic circles, but they have rarely made headlines in Russia. Even so, Yeltsin controls nuclear weapons and receives billions of dollars in aid from the West every year.
Even though he was virtually powerless, Yeltsin, being a good performer, met in grand style with Clinton. Just days later, his parliament was about to eviscerate him by refusing to approve his package of reforms or his chosen candidate as prime minister. Both emperors had no clothes and yet they danced the dance of summitry.
The 20th century’s version of choosing leaders is flawed because it is largely based on political systems that reward television performances. That’s why politics attracts only performers who are skilful at wearing masks, not persons of real substance and skills. What’s needed are level-headed managers, not leaders like Yeltsin and Clinton who gain and hold power through manipulation, charisma and emotion.
The best political model when it comes to leadership is Switzerland. A president is chosen by those elected to serve a one-year term. The cabinet is proportionately representative of the parties sent to parliament. The president operates like a chief executive officer who must answer to all parties and voters. The result is that few outside Switzerland know the name of its president because the president changes every year. But that’s the beauty of it all. It’s a nation led by managers, not by phoneys with problems who are packaged to look like men of strong character and vision.
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