The past two weeks have given us some prominent cases in what does and does not work in political leadership. Elliot Spitzer ignominiously relinquished the New York governor’s office when revelations of his sex life made his political position untenable. The problem was that while he was representing himself as a high-minded reformer and moral exemplar, he was also visiting prostitutes. The public (if not his family) might have forgiven the acts, but not the hypocrisy. A reformer who constructs a case for change around a narrative of moral superiority is left with no hold on the political high ground when it turns out that the narrative is (inevitably) groundless.
Strikingly, the day after being sworn in as the new governor, David Paterson preempted questions about his own extra marital life by announcing with his wife that each of them had engaged in affairs. On the one hand, it seemed strange to be hearing about something so private and personal from a politician, and the question of how this was relevant to his ability to govern was raised by reporters and commentators. On the other hand, there was something very refreshing and brave about two people who knew themselves to be flawed, just like the rest of us, coming out and saying so.
Many people in our society have had extramarital affairs, including me. The issue is not that it happens. The issue is what effect does it have on the various ways that we then lead our lives, publicly and privately. For me, it meant ending a marriage. It also meant examining my professional work and asking myself whether I could still be an effective coach and consultant. Did I have the integrity to do the work that I do? After grappling with this for a while, I concluded that I could still be effective and even that I could be more compassionate to the challenges of my clients than I had been before.
What Paterson did was to say, “I’m human, and I am the governor.” I think this is great. It’s authentic and it says what we all know to be true anyway. We as an electorate have a tendency to want to be fooled into believing that our leaders are better than we are. It’s just not so and it places an impossible expectation on the people who run for office. Which brings me to the big election…
This past Tuesday, Barack Obama gave a speech ostensibly to respond to statements made by the former pastor of the church Obama has attended for 20 years. Along with sex, religion is one of the most controversial topics we can discuss when spoken about personally. In this case, the statements that the Reverend Wright made were about his view of America as a racist society. By saying, “Not God bless America…God damn America.” Reverend Wright crossed a line, especially to the ears of many white americans. From a political standpoint, Obama had