Change, The Real Thing

There is another race that Senator Barack Obama has won hands-down.

He’s the only one with a decent logo. The Obama campaign has developed a contained, clear graphic that conveys just about everything most folks feel they need to know.

People know Obama’s got good design on his side, too. Next time there’s news of an Obama speech, take a look at the photo: often, it’ll be a stark image of the Senator against a dark background, so he stands out. Hovering, a bit out of focus, behind the Senator, will be that logo.

The fact of this logo’s existence says more than you might think about his candidacy. No other candidate has one. Sure, other candidates may say they have a logo — but it’s all just little wavy flags or bold stars surrounding their names. That Obama logo marks that the campaign, in part, has been about building a “brand.”

But we are not in an ad campaign; we are in an election campaign. The competition is far different than that between soft drinks. If I buy The Real Thing today, I can turn around and Do The Dew tomorrow. But the act of voting is more than simply stating a preference.

We go to a special place in order to vote, having in most cases waited in a line with others who are about to do the same thing. Tension mounts; we see our neighbors. The American flags and officious posters on the walls, the intent poll-watchers skulking about, the earnest volunteer election judges — it all adds to the seriousness. Even if I was not really focusing last night, or the week before, I sure am now, in line.

As I enter the booth, the import of my task strikes me. (I hear a similar thing happens among juries.)

On some level, I begin to realize I am not just saying who I “like” more, or who I would more rather go to Applebee’s with. Nor am I “hiring” someone for a “job.” I am, instead, making a choice that I believe ought to be binding on my fellow citizens. I am choosing for them as much as I am choosing for me.

Veteran political consultants know that the rules of the commercial world do not fully apply in election campaigns. While the two worlds use many of the same tools, they are different in important respects. Candidates who consciously proclaim “a different kind of message” run a risk when it comes to be crunch time. Because, for all of our complaining that campaigns have become a beauty contest — it’s not exactly so. Buzz, as we saw during Howard Dean’s candidacy, does not necessarily translate into votes.

But, from observing the Obama campaign’s mien over the last weeks, it seems the Senator or his strategists do indeed know the difference between ads and elections — you see that logo less and less these days.

The Clinton campaign now has a slim reed on which to hang, which is that the hard work that has gone before will pay dividends and allow her to hang on into the spring. But it is not a foregone conclusion that the slogging work of politics can overtake the undeniable allure of a powerful message and a charismatic messenger — which has now begun to focus like a laser on closing the deal.

I am a bit hopeful that the primary season will wear on, tiresome as it can be. I do know it may well be over soon. But the fight does the candidates good, and pays dividends to us citizens at home: Watching the repeated primaries, I am invited to check my own opinions — Who would I have voted for last Tuesday? How about the Tuesday a few weeks before? My thoughts become clearer week by week and, eventually, along with my neighbor’s and fellow citizens across the country, they build up to a collective judgment of who ought to be the nominee. Such judgments are improved by age.

I may be old-fashioned, but I am glad there is still an area of public life that we continue to keep closed off from the marketers. When we draw the curtain in the voting booth, even if we may not articulate this to ourselves, each of us stakes our own tiny claim for the seriousness of the task before us.

(Images from campaign websites.)

Being Wrong

One recent week, I had occasion to say publicly I’d been wrong — not once but twice. I like to think, each time, that it’ll be the last time I have to do that. But, if past performance is the best predictor of future behavior, then the likelihood is that I will need to publicly admit to being wrong again in the not-too-distant future.

I used to think such admissions were momentous occasions to be avoided, that they reflected some fundamental problem that could have been avoided. Better planning, more precision, be more careful, those were the answers. Sure, that will all help improve things. But more recently, I see public apologies differently, as an increasing part of public life. I believe this is for the best.

The conventional wisdom, which still holds sway with many, is that an admission of error is to be shunned. Even if forced to retract something, or (worse yet) apologize, it’s always “mistakes were made,” or there was an “appearance of impropriety.” Why is it so hard to just ‘fess up and get on with things? While it can be very painful, it’s not the end of the world; just try harder next time.

My good friend Rich Harwood likes to say that leading in public life takes courage and humility — courage to place a stake in the ground, and humility to know that, later, you will more than likely have to publicly pick it up and move it.

The Internet, and the transparency it has driven, has accelerated this. Statements get made, articles get published, and responses appear immediately. Things that are far off the mark increasingly stand out, and the original speakers will often need to make corrections, issue retractions. The ability — the imperative — to do this is one of the chief differences between the “old” guard of journalism and the “new.” Think of CBS’s response to what is now known as “Rathergate“: lengthy refusal to admit that key documents in one of its high-profile stories were likely forged. Digging their heels into the ground, they increasingly opened themselves to criticism. By contrast, in one of my recent episodes of contrition, my article was updated based on feedback received the same day it was originally published. I don’t hold this up to point out how groovy I am personally, but instead to show this as an example of what a different approach to public life might look like.

But, maybe it’s ingrained in people not to admit mistakes. When hiring someone, I have a favorite interview question. I ask them to describe something that was a failure. I make sure to say the word, “failure,” too. People have a hard time with that one; they typically don’t want to point to anything they did that might have been a mistake.

My subjects will squirm and then discuss situations that went awry due to others’ idiocy, or due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. They will almost never say, “I did such-and-so, and later saw that this was a bonehead move, so instead I did this-and-that. Here’s what I learned.” Maybe it’s too much to ask for someone to admit error in an interview situation. No one has ever asked me that in an interview; maybe I couldn’t answer. But if someone ever gives me a straight answer to that question, I am hiring them on the spot.

I like to believe that, as communications technologies continue to erode the barriers between the opiners and the opined-to, and between the leaders and the led, that we will see more and more instances of public correction. It is already expected in many quarters, and the holdouts are slowly becoming fewer in number. It may be a bitter pill, but it is also strong medicine in public life. It erases many divisions, so that people can hear one another better.

Since we are all likely to be wrong not once but many times, we all will have a chance to be part of the movement away from the bunker mentality and towards a more productive way of relating in public life.

The question is whether we will find the guts to follow it. I fall short more than I would like to admit. How about you?

White Men Can't Talk

The article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

There is a priceless moment in Oliver Stone’s unfairly maligned The Doors, when our heroes are prepping to go on the Ed Sullivan Show. They are met by a stage assistant, a real twerp, who informs them that, “The network guys have a problem with one of your lyrics. ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much higher.'” He goes on: ” You can’t say ‘higher’ on the network, so they asked if you could say instead: ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much better.'”

The band looks at him, bemused. He finishes with: “Could you dig that?”

That dork’s use of the word “dig” in this context perfectly illustrates what often happens when mainstream folks try to appropriate street talk: they get it wrong, either by not understanding proper usage, or just plain sounding silly. While we play such things for laughs, they ring true because we see the same thing every day.

I remember a song by a milquetoast rapper named Vanilla Ice, called “Ice Ice Baby.” You probably remember it too. It’s your standard 1990’s fare, filled with braggadocio about the protagonist’s many fine exploits. I can’t help laughing when I hear some of the lines in the tune. Vanilla says he is “Rollin’ in my 5.0” at one point. We all remember the angular 5.0 liter Mustang that was popular then. Vanilla spends three couplets on his “5.0,” with evident pride not just in its fanciness but also in his street cred for knowing such slang. Thing is, that’s not what the term “5-0” meant at the time — it meant “police,” as in “Hawaii 5-0.” (Vanilla, whose real name is Rob Van Winkle, is a far more mature person now and a new crowd has come to enjoy his music.)

All this came back to me as the David Shuster saga unfolded. In an intemperate moment, our chalk-stripe-suited host says that Chelsea Clinton is being “pimped out” by her mom’s campaign.

This has generated a firestorm and Shuster is now suspended for uttering such a derogatory remark. For my part, I would have wanted to suspend him for not understanding the language he was trying to use. He pulled a Vanilla Ice.

Dig: “Pimped out” means “made very fancy,” as a stereotypical pimp might decorate something. There are overtones of exploitation, too, as in when something is “tricked out” — that is, made alluring enough for a trick.

What Shuster probably meant to say was that he felt Chelsea was being “pimped,” as in “exploited.” It’s a small slip, like Vanilla Ice’s slip when it comes to his car, but it matters. On its face, Shuster’s remark meant the campaign was dressing Chelsea up. In context, it was incoherent. In trying to appropriate so-called street lingo, he botched the job and made the same mistakes any foreign speaker makes when idiomatically out of their depth, with similarly hilarious results.

When I was in high school, I hosted an exchange student from Belgium. He fancied himself quite the Casanova, but most of my friends thought him the opposite. We taught him that the term “doughbrain” was our slang expression for “ladies’ man.” I regret it, now, as it was just mean — but, man was it funny at the time.

If I were advising my exchange brother now, I would say to watch out and double check what idiomatic expressions mean, because you might just wind up sounding like a real Newman.

I guess David Shuster could use the same advice.

ADDENDUM: Looks like I made a mistake, and relied on my recollection and the lyric sheet when it came to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” — instead of re-listening to the song itself. He doesn’t say “five-oh” (which is what I remembered) but says “five point oh.” Commenters at Pajamas Media who have pointed that out are right. Kicking myself. You should, too!

They’re also right that it knocks a big leg out from under my point, but not entirely: Shuster sounded really silly saying “pimped out,” like a suit trying to talk street, and (this much I still maintain) misusing the term in that way.

White Men Can’t Talk

The article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

There is a priceless moment in Oliver Stone’s unfairly maligned The Doors, when our heroes are prepping to go on the Ed Sullivan Show. They are met by a stage assistant, a real twerp, who informs them that, “The network guys have a problem with one of your lyrics. ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much higher.'” He goes on: ” You can’t say ‘higher’ on the network, so they asked if you could say instead: ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much better.'”

The band looks at him, bemused. He finishes with: “Could you dig that?”

That dork’s use of the word “dig” in this context perfectly illustrates what often happens when mainstream folks try to appropriate street talk: they get it wrong, either by not understanding proper usage, or just plain sounding silly. While we play such things for laughs, they ring true because we see the same thing every day.

I remember a song by a milquetoast rapper named Vanilla Ice, called “Ice Ice Baby.” You probably remember it too. It’s your standard 1990’s fare, filled with braggadocio about the protagonist’s many fine exploits. I can’t help laughing when I hear some of the lines in the tune. Vanilla says he is “Rollin’ in my 5.0” at one point. We all remember the angular 5.0 liter Mustang that was popular then. Vanilla spends three couplets on his “5.0,” with evident pride not just in its fanciness but also in his street cred for knowing such slang. Thing is, that’s not what the term “5-0” meant at the time — it meant “police,” as in “Hawaii 5-0.” (Vanilla, whose real name is Rob Van Winkle, is a far more mature person now and a new crowd has come to enjoy his music.)

All this came back to me as the David Shuster saga unfolded. In an intemperate moment, our chalk-stripe-suited host says that Chelsea Clinton is being “pimped out” by her mom’s campaign.

This has generated a firestorm and Shuster is now suspended for uttering such a derogatory remark. For my part, I would have wanted to suspend him for not understanding the language he was trying to use. He pulled a Vanilla Ice.

Dig: “Pimped out” means “made very fancy,” as a stereotypical pimp might decorate something. There are overtones of exploitation, too, as in when something is “tricked out” — that is, made alluring enough for a trick.

What Shuster probably meant to say was that he felt Chelsea was being “pimped,” as in “exploited.” It’s a small slip, like Vanilla Ice’s slip when it comes to his car, but it matters. On its face, Shuster’s remark meant the campaign was dressing Chelsea up. In context, it was incoherent. In trying to appropriate so-called street lingo, he botched the job and made the same mistakes any foreign speaker makes when idiomatically out of their depth, with similarly hilarious results.

When I was in high school, I hosted an exchange student from Belgium. He fancied himself quite the Casanova, but most of my friends thought him the opposite. We taught him that the term “doughbrain” was our slang expression for “ladies’ man.” I regret it, now, as it was just mean — but, man was it funny at the time.

If I were advising my exchange brother now, I would say to watch out and double check what idiomatic expressions mean, because you might just wind up sounding like a real Newman.

I guess David Shuster could use the same advice.

ADDENDUM: Looks like I made a mistake, and relied on my recollection and the lyric sheet when it came to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” — instead of re-listening to the song itself. He doesn’t say “five-oh” (which is what I remembered) but says “five point oh.” Commenters at Pajamas Media who have pointed that out are right. Kicking myself. You should, too!

They’re also right that it knocks a big leg out from under my point, but not entirely: Shuster sounded really silly saying “pimped out,” like a suit trying to talk street, and (this much I still maintain) misusing the term in that way.

The Tyranny Of Leadership

This article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

The Cub Scout pack that I lead decided, for the first time, to hold a parents’ race at our recent Pinewood Derby. We did it as a fundraiser.

My car, while creative (I made it look like a rock), did not do very well in the race. I did not come in last, but I was not in the top half of finishers. I took it all right; about as well as other boys in the pack took their losses. One youngster beckoned me down to his level and said, with concern, “It’s hard to hide your tears, isn’t it?” He had lost a race a few heats before, and had almost cried. His simple kindness cleared my head.

My head did, indeed, need clearing, but not due to tears.

I have led this pack for about three years now. I do a pretty good job, if I say so myself. I know it’s not just me; we have a terrific group of parents. But I know they like me and think I am doing a good job, and generally feel secure in my exalted position. After all, it’s a task that few really want — perhaps I am odd; I recently signed on for another year.

In any event, my young friend’s words knocked me out of a tailspin of doubt. I had been thinking to myself, “Perhaps I should not have raced. My status is now diminished because of this loss.”

The power of this thought, its immediacy, and my inability to put it out of my head through my own efforts, all shook me. If you had asked me the night before how I would feel if my car did not do well, I would have told you that I am a collaborative enough leader to be able to withstand something as silly as a model car-racing loss. If you had asked me even earlier, hypothetically, how a leader ought to approach a parents’ race for charity, I would have told you that a true leader would jump at the chance to sign up and would cheerlead for the cause, not caring a whit about how the standings turned out. And, I would have believed to my core that I would act as that kind of leader when it came to it.

But there I was, fretting. You really don’t know how you’ll react until something happens. It’s so easy to make decisions in the hypothetical. It’s even easy to imagine how you would behave in a given situation, but the truth is we really only know how we like to think we would behave.

I was shaken to realize how selfishly my thoughts had turned, and how quickly. Where was my collaborative leadership style? Where did this Great Santini, for whom winning was everything, come from? I know I should not be too hard on myself, for such thoughts are natural. But I will always remember how — unlike my own view of myself they were.

As I watch the presidential debates and the candidate interviews, I can’t help but think how I would answer certain questions, how I would parry certain jabs. It baffles me why certain candidates don’t just say this, or that. But, my Cub Scout friend reminded me that it’s not me talking to Wolf Blitzer or Tim Russert, and there’s really no saying what I would do under those circumstances. For all our self-satisfaction of how enlightened we are, the urge to self-preservation is strong.

I may disagree with what they say or how they say it, but my hat is off to the people who choose to run for office, and daily place themselves in situations that would turn most of us to jelly. I hope that some of them have the chance to meet people like my Cub Scout friend.