The Empty Suitor

by Jonathan Wallace

Disclaimer: I wish I had thought up this title, but I stole it; it is the name of a dance in the repertory of Pilobolus Dance Group (highly recommended; they are talented, unusual and very funny).

There are things we are good at in an organic way. Running for example. Nature and nurture both play a role. You might have been born graced with a runner's body. You discovered a predilection, were encouraged by the people around you, developed your skill. Now, when you pass the fortieth minute of a long distance run, you begin feeling the runner's high, the exhiliration of the exercise, mingled with the excitement and pride of being good at something, deep in one's cells.

Leadership is another one of these natural talents. In any group of people, some will be noted as more decisive and perceptive, more just and strong, than others. People will gravitate towards these problem solvers, putting them in charge of things. One thing that makes some of these natural leaders enjoyable to be around is the pleasure they take in leading: the knowledge, that is not necessarily vanity, that they are very good at it. Winston Churchill was such a leader, and so was Harry Truman. George W. Bush and John Kerry are not.

Just as a runner knows, without thinking about it, when to hold back and when to throw in his remaining reserves of energy, a leader leads instinctively, analyzing the terrain ahead, and producing an unconciously mediated solution based on calculations she might not even be able to describe: desirable outcomes, involved interests, justice, consolidation (or at least not waste) of her authority. The natural leader has an image of the outcome and then builds the pathways necessary to get there.

The people around her should look at a natural leader and think: "Let's ask her to solve this. She always knows what to do."

This type of leadership has nothing to do with marketing, spin, polling and carefully groomed presentation. Leaders, as the noun makes clear, are ahead of the led, not following them carefully trying to calculate what they want.

The day of the natural, the organic leader, is all but over in America. I blame the money, which has caused a complete arteriosclerosis of the system. Since getting elected in a system dominated by television requires millions of dollars, natural leadership has all but dropped from the tree as a factor taken into consideration when a candidate's electability is analyzed by the money people. The final defeat of the system is evidenced by our propensity to elect people who are not actually leaders, but have played them in movies.

John Kerry is an intelligent man, who probably has some incipient leadership skills, but he is entirely a captive of a system which has made him a product. His awkwardness, his lack of spontaneity, his fear of committing to a principle or an idea which may not be popular later, make him the epitome of one of the two types of 21st century political human. His campaign, like the Democratic party itself, is fearful, careful, and dominated by the desire to be everything to everybody: the paradoxical desire to attract the maximum number of voters by standing for nothing.

What has happened in politics in the last forty years closely mirrors what has happened to the rest of marketing. In the sixties and seventies, David Ogilvy was the guru of fact-based marketing: his ads told you how many stitches were in an Arrow shirt, and what kind of craftsman made them. Today, ads never contain this kind of information and no-one would care about it: we are all captives of the primitive, powerful fantasy that wearing the shirt will make us better or more attractive humans, regardless of the stitching. Similarly, we assimilate our identities as Kerry or Bush supporters, as Democrats or Republicans, based on the kind of extremely vague feelings that militate our choice of shirts.

Conventions used to be places where actual deals were made; now they are tightly scripted, highly boring marketing events, intended to underscore the concept of the party and candidate as lifestyle choice.

Even if we elect John Kerry--as I hope happens, I will be voting for him--we will be electing a man who, through long force of habit and his status as a prisoner of a particular type of system, will lead by following, by constantly asking his advisors, and us directly, what we want him to do or say next. Rather than presidents who aspire to make sweeping changes to the system, as Roosevelt did, we now will have presidents who aspire never to stand out, to take no risks, to have unmemorable adninistrations unscarred by scandal. In peaceful, prosperous times, such administrations may meet the minimum nutritrional requirements, but these are not those times.

I mentioned that Kerry represented one of two types of 21st century political human. President Bush is the other. After decades of marketing- and polling-driven politics, the money men made the belated discovery that it is possible to have a campaign without an actual product. This is comparable to the key insight of the dotcom years that a company's valuation need not be based on an actual value, which can be replaced by a sort of semiotic marker inscribed with the sign "value". As a sign, Bush is constantly contradicting his own sense; there are days where it seems like his handlers can barely keep him pointed in the right direction, or minimally comprehensible; but it doesn't really matter, at least in the short run, any more than it did for a while that Yugos fell apart, or Pintos blew up.

A vote for Kerry is a faltering step upwards, from a nonPresident to a minimal one. George Bush is an empty suit, John Kerry an empty suitor. Hurrah for Kerry.