“Doing what’s right. Getting things done”
Two events involving former leaders have put me in a somewhat reflective mood today regarding leadership in general and politics in particular.
The first is the 100th Birthday of President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy is the first President I have any real memory of personally. Although I was only in the fourth grade when he was assassinated in Dallas, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when he died.
Whether I like it or not, my own life will forever be linked in a way to JFK because of my receiving the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award in 2003. Perhaps because of that award I have read and studied his career more than most former Presidents.
I have often thought that JFK would not have been elected in today’s non-stop coverage 24 hours a day. The events in his personal life were known but off limits during his presidential election in 1960. There would be no such restraints in today’s “take no prisoners” political environment.
Yet he was young, vibrant, and telegenic, projecting hope for a broad portion of the population. I often wonder what might have been, both good and bad, had he survived to serve a full term as President.
The second event was the death of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. History may not have been kind when reflecting on Carter’s term as President, but Brzezinski served honorably during the Iran Hostage Crisis, was instrumental in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and helped bring about the full normalization of relations between the United States and China.
In listening to some of the many commentaries about Dr. Brzezinski, I heard one of his peers state that “Zbig” always did what he thought was right, while getting things done at the same time.
Sometimes I think that the public doesn’t realize just how difficult it is to get things done in today’s political environment. In addition, doing what is right is often driven more by the latest polls than moral convictions.
The easiest course for a politician is to play it safe, take actions reflective of the voters in their gerrymandered district, and to follow party leadership’s directions on policy matters. That is probably one of the major reasons we are in the political morass we find ourselves in today. There is no partisanship in that statement; there is an abundance of this behavior in both parties.
Yet I realize that an elected official cannot get things done if they are turned out of office. It is part of the tightrope that even the best of aspiring politicians must learn to walk, no matter what their leadership skills and achievements might have been prior to their election.
I cannot comment from firsthand knowledge about the toxic atmosphere in Washington, but as a former County Commission Chairman, State Representative, and now Mayor, I can say that all officials wrestle with doing what is right and getting things done. The harder you push for new and innovative things, the steeper the climb becomes.
Doing what is right is not always about legality or morality, though the media loves covering the salacious details of any personal failings.
Doing what is right is often about trying to discern the best direction for your community, knowing they are counting on you to make the right decision even if they are unaware of the details or circumstances of the decision at hand. Occasionally you honestly don’t know what the right decision is and you just have to do the best you can do. That is when you feel most alone.
Things go a little bit wrong and you will bear the brunt of the blame. Things go right and others will be happy to take the credit. The power of inertia is great.
Perhaps I have lived long enough to have learned from my own experiences that you can only do the best you can do. That is all you can offer and all you can deliver. Hopefully at the end of my time, someone will be kind enough to say that I did the right thing and I got things done. At least I will know I tried.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org