Off the Cuff: June 2006

I know it sounds ridiculous, but recently I’ve been thinking about Jimmy Carter. Back in the ’70s, during the first oil crisis, Carter (who was one of our worst presidents of the last half century) spent a weekend at Camp David, and came back to Washington convinced he knew what was wrong with the country: We were all in a malaise.

Webster defines malaise as “a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being.” By that definition, I’m now in my own malaise. That’s because I’m consumed with the feeling that during one of the most critical periods in our history, the nation has no leadership. What we do have is a dysfunctional government nationally, and an ineffective one (at best) at the local level.

In spite of this, several weeks ago I felt a glimmer of hope. It was at a Shore Memorial Hospital fund-raiser, at the Tropicana in Atlantic City, and Rudy Giuliani was the guest speaker. Amazingly, 600 people showed up to hear him on a beautiful spring Sunday at noon.

Giuliani spoke about what it takes to be a true leader. A true leader must have a well-thought-out vision, and the guts to stick with it. You can’t lead by taking polls, because if you ask everyone what you should do, then you’re not leading.

And a leader needs to maintain optimism for the future. Giuliani mimicked our current so-called style of leadership:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t see any way out of this crisis. I don’t know what we’re going to do. Our problems are simply not solvable.”

Then Giuliani turned his back and, with a big sweep of his arm, gestured to the crowd as if he was leading us somewhere: “Okay, everyone — follow me!”

Nobody moved, but 600 people laughed. “Who,” Giuliani wondered, “would really follow somebody like that?”

Listening to Giuliani, on the other hand, was a breath of fresh air. We all remember his handling of 9/11 as New York’s mayor, how he struck just the right tone of “This is what is happening, this is what we’re doing” during the crisis.

When he spoke at the Trop, he walked around the stage with no notes — he wasn’t giving a speech. It felt as if he was having a conversation with all of us. Giuliani was simple and direct, with an ability to relate that he honed talking to juries as a federal prosecutor — a job in which he made people angry. In fact, he thought he was doing a good job when, at one time or another, everyone was annoyed with him: white-collar criminals, mobsters, corrupt politicians, etc.

Giuliani made plenty of enemies as mayor of New York, too, most pointedly with his stance as a tough law-and-order guy. But he was able to transform the city into one of our safest by empowering police in various ways and not backing down when inevitable allegations of law enforcement excess surfaced. His unwavering stance hurt him in the polls, but he didn’t give in.

Here’s how Giuliani describes toughness, from his book Leadership:

“Elective politics … is a popularity contest. That doesn’t mean a leader … should lead with his finger in the wind. … A leader is chosen because whoever put him there trusts his judgment, character, and intelligence — not his poll-­taking skills.” And that amounts to Giuliani’s mantra: “Be Your Own Man.”

That’s what Rudy Giuliani spoke about at the Trop. The stunning thing is how simple and straightforward his ideas of leadership are. He kept going back to having a well-thought-out vision and sticking to it, and he came off as profound because we are obviously so hungry for a real statesman.

But that’s a tough thing to become, in today’s political marketplace; our best and brightest tend to bow out instead of compromising themselves for the largest common denominator. So maybe the current malaise does have something to do with us, as Jimmy Carter once complained. I wonder: Do we really want a leader with a genuine vision, and the guts to see it through?