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"‘Charisma’ Not Always a Good Thing" - 2-27-08
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February 27, 2008
There’s a report going around that in one of his emotional campaign speeches, Senator Barack Obama paused to blow his nose and the crowd responded with applause and cheers as they did after virtually every other sentence in his customary display of oratorical charisma.
Whether or not Obama’s support from what The New York Times recently described as “a cult of personality” has reached the stage that even a pause for nose blowing draws cheers of applause, I don’t think there is any doubt that unquestioning, unthinking, support of any charismatic figure should be of concern to anyone who believes that important political decisions should be based on reason, not emotion.
A recent New York Times column carried a headline which read: “Follow Me” followed by these words: “The Charisma Mandate.” You’ll not be surprised to learn that The New York Times column took a generally friendly view of political “charisma” and a resultant “cult of personality.” The Times reasoning is that a charismatic leader can bring about desirable change more effectively than a political leader who doesn’t have that magnetism.
The Times column didn’t address what I think is a clear potential downside; i.e., that charisma, leading to a kind of blind following of a charismatic leader could also bring about undesirable political change.
When I stopped for a bit of business at a small “mom and pop” shop operated by two friends of mine, the conversation turned, somewhat inevitably, to the current presidential campaign. I referred to The New York Times article which had emphasized that Obama had “charisma.”
“So did Hitler” was the immediate reaction of the “mom” of the “mom and pop” team.
My friend had a good point. Charismatic leaders can be essential to a country’s very survival in some cases, as in Winston Churchill’s leadership of Great Britain during World War II. And charismatic leaders can steer countries through very difficult times, as in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership during his presidency. But then there are charismatic leaders like Hitler and Mussolini. And for closer-to-home examples of charisma which destroys democracy rather than encourages it, one need look no further than Cuba under Fidel Castro and Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.
Now before members of the Obama cult of personality accuse me of comparing him to Hitler or Mussolini or Castro, let the record show that I am simply emphasizing the importance of learning, to the extent that we can, where a charismatic leader might lead us before electing him to the presidency of the United States.
* * *
I wonder if the Nebraska Legislature shouldn’t simply “cut to the chase” as the saying goes, and increase the state gasoline tax to provide funds for additional highway construction.
Using cash reserve funds as some senators have proposed or dipping into the state general fund revenue—an idea voiced some months ago but apparently not now under serious consideration—would be at best questionable temporary patches on the basic system of financing state highway needs.
Senator Deb Fischer of Valentine has talked of an ingenious way of raising more highway funds without a direct increase in the state gasoline tax. Her proposal would levy a tax on the wholesalers who provide gasoline for thousands of pumps all over the state. But, as Senator Fischer conceded when she first announced her plan, the wholesalers would in turn presumably pass the cost along to the filling station operators, who in turn would pass it on to the customers.
One might ask what difference it makes to a driver whether the 30-cents-a-gallon price increase is a result of a direct increase in the state gasoline tax or the result of a tax imposed on petroleum wholesalers who pass it back to the driver through the filling station operator.
Highway revenue discussion ought to proceed in an atmosphere that avoids language like some which has been voiced in recent weeks. A Public Pulse writer, for example, recently wrote that our roads are falling apart. This is nonsense.
An inquiry to the Nebraska Department of Roads produced these answers:
A shortfall in federal highway aid (a situation which still might be corrected by Congress) will still leave the state with enough funds to adequately maintain the existing state highway system, including such major maintenance as replacing worn-out sections of existing highways.
It is the capital improvements budget—the construction of additional miles of four-lane expressways, for example—that will be affected, at least in the short term.
In all the stories which have been written in recent weeks about the highway funding problem, it seems to me that the most sensible viewpoint was expressed early on by Governor Dave Heineman.
Near the close of a story which was headlined: “General fund eyed for roads project.” Heineman was quoted as saying: “Quite honestly, there’s no way we can do every road that’s being suggested out there. What I hear from citizens is that we need to make some priority decisions and get more projects completed, as opposed to doing more projects and taking longer to get them done.”
* * *
A tip of my columnist’s cap—the one with the fur-lined earflaps, of course—to State Senator DiAnna Schimek and her 29 legislative colleagues who voted to overturn Governor Dave Heineman’s veto of a bill which will help protect the integrity of Nebraska’s citizen-petition-process of amending Nebraska law.
At issue was Legislative Bill 39, designed to end the use of hired carpetbaggers to come into the state and exercise (perhaps “abuse” is a better word) a right supposedly reserved to the people of Nebraska; i.e., the right to place proposed laws and constitutional amendments on the ballot through the circulation of petitions.
The language in the state constitution seems clear enough: “The first power reserved by the people is the initiative whereby laws may be enacted and constitutional amendments adopted by the people independently of the Legislature…This power may be invoked by petition…”
That language makes no mention of the possibility that Nebraskans’ right to place issues on the ballot can be hijacked by people like Howard Rich, a wealthy New York City resident. Rich and his associates provided more than $1 million to send professional petition-circulators into the state in 2006 in a successful effort to place on the ballot a tax-limitation constitutional amendment which he was promoting in Nebraska and several other states. (The Rich-sponsored amendment was voted down by Nebraskans by a 61-39 margin.)
There are, of course, also Nebraska-based abuses of the people’s right to place issues on the ballot by petition: These abuses involve the importing of hired-gun petition circulators to bring to the ballot issues sponsored by Nebraska-based organizations which don’t want either to go to the trouble of having their own members circulate the petitions or to hire Nebraskans as petition circulators.
Legislative Bill 39, has, in my opinion, the weakness of still allowing paid circulators—who have no interest in the issue except using it to make money—to be used to circulate petitions.
But, importantly, LB39 requires that the circulators be residents of Nebraska and cannot be paid so much per signature. This latter provision was designed to discourage petition-circulators from simply piling up the greatest number of signatures in the shortest possible time, instead of obeying a state law which requires that the circulator explain the purpose of the proposal to each voter whose signature the circulator is soliciting.
In a later column, additional discussion of the initiative petition issue—a path to the ballot which, incidentally but significantly, a majority of states have found they can do without and still function democratically. Today I’ll conclude with a hearty “Well done!” to Senator Schimek and her 29 veto-overriding colleagues:
Senators Adams, Aguilar, Ashford, Avery, Burling, Carlson, Chambers, Christensen, Dubas, Engel, Harms, Howard, Hudkins, Johnson, Karpisek and Kopplin.
Senators Kruse, Lathrop, McDonald, McGill, Nantkes, Pankonin, Pedersen, Preister, Raikes, Rogert, Synowiecki, Wallman and White.
* * *
Predictably, the United States, with some news media heavily involved, again this year figuratively deified Martin Luther King, Jr. on the anniversary of his birthday and brushed off the nation’s presidents—including Abraham Lincoln, who also could be said to have died in the cause of civil rights—with scant attention to “Presidents’ Day.”
(Exception: Car dealers, a number of whom had “Presidents’ Day Sales.”)
In Omaha, for example, the scope of the annual celebration of King’s career led The World-Herald to provide coverage of more than 1 ½ pages, including 15 pictures, eight of them in color.
The newspaper acknowledged Presidents’ Day with an editorial. There was also, at the bottom of a section-front page, a story mentioning a Durham Western Heritage Museum exhibit recognizing Presidents’ Day. Included was a small cartoon reflecting President John Quincy Adams’ habit of swimming in the nude.
* * *
While on the subject of the way the nation recognizes Martin Luther King each year (a celebration which I think should be replaced by a national Civil Rights Day to recognize King and others who contributed significantly to the civil rights movement):
Hillary Clinton was soundly criticized by some for an absolutely truthful remark which she made in connection with King’s achievements. It took a president to turn the civil rights momentum generated by King into the historic Civil Rights Act passed by Congress in 1964, Clinton observed. Her remark was criticized as being “insensitive.”
Her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, joined those trying to take political advantage of Hillary Clinton’s telling the truth at a time when blacks could accuse her of being “insensitive” towards King. Obama said that Clinton had “made an unfortunate remark, an ill-advised remark about King and Lyndon Johnson.”
Here are the facts: Before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy was being pushed by Vice President Lyndon Johnson into introducing civil rights legislation, which Kennedy did before his death. At Johnson’s urging, the civil rights legislation was strengthened, and Johnson was largely responsible for pushing it through the Congress over strenuous objections from members of Congress, including Democrats.
Legend has it that after signing the landmark Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, Johnson said to an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation.”
Whether or not Johnson made such a statement, the reality was that he fully realized that passage of the act at the urging of a Democratic president could cost the Democratic Party the South, where during the years following 1964, Republican candidates unseated a significant number of Democrats.
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