By Donella Meadows
–January 30, 1992—-
Once I took part in a seminar on leadership, in which our group of about 100 people was asked to choose a leader within a few minutes, without anyone uttering a word.
We milled about in silent confusion. I tried to evaluate people from their looks and their manner. Some folks swaggered around trying to project leaderliness, gesturing in one way or another, “Choose me! Choose me!” All of them, as it happened, were men. Small clusters began to form around a few of the swaggerers. Most of us, clueless, joined the nearest cluster, eager to bring this uncomfortable exercise to an end. It took almost no time for a group around one of the tallest, most dominant men to sweep everyone else in, and the job was done.
He turned out to be a terrible leader.
Once in a class on leadership I asked my students to write an essay describing the ideal President of the United States. I was appalled at how many of them started by saying he (always he) would have to be tall, with broad shoulders and a deep, commanding voice.
For some reason these experiences come to mind as the presidential primary comes again to New Hampshire.
About two weeks ago the icy wind blew the word through the state: Bill Clinton, the tallest Democrat, is IT. The frontrunner. The one who is “most electable,” said the party functionaries, soon echoed by the press. Well, they should know, I thought. They actually follow these guys around and listen to their speeches. They’re clever, well-informed people. So I glommed onto the cluster around Bill Clinton and started to listen.
He says smart, careful things, I discovered. He seems to be as decent as a man burning with ambition can be. He would be a vast improvement over anything that has inhabited the White House for years. (I’m not a Democrat, but I’m emphatically not a Republican. My income does not qualify me for that party; I fall within the less-well-off 80 percent of the population whose incomes go down under Republican rule, while their taxes go up. I can’t figure out for the life of me why Republicans ever get more than 20 percent of the vote.)
The clever people have chosen the right man, I decided. Bill Clinton has a good shot at getting to Washington. He’s a moderate. He’s a compromiser. He can pull people with many different beliefs behind him. He’s got the most money. He’s a good talker, he’s tall, he has blow-dried hair.
The trouble is, not one of those characteristics shows up on my list of what I want in a president. I don’t want a compromiser, I want someone who will take a hard stand against corrupt special interests. I don’t want someone who can summon lots of money from exactly those interests. I don’t care how a person looks, I care about his ethics, his commitment to democracy, his willingness to stand for the interests of the little people. Bill Clinton strikes me, as do most people with the ego to run for president, as standing mostly for the political career of Bill Clinton.
The person who comes closest to fitting my list is Jerry Brown. I say that with embarrassment, because everyone knows HE can’t win. Imagine refusing to take large campaign contributions! Imagine training for leadership by studying with Jesuits and Buddhists and serving with Mother Theresa! When he was governor of California, he lived in a simple apartment and refused to ride in limousines! This fellow is not serious! He’s even losing his hair!
But the first item on my list of presidential qualifications is a commitment to campaign reform. The second item is an energy policy that goes away from big oil and big coal and toward efficiency and solar. The third is a deep-down understanding of how the environment works. Brown gets gold stars for all three, and another one for having actually spent quality time with poor folks. His stand on campaign reform is radically democratic — which is why the press and party have deemed him unelectable.
The constitution says that a candidate for president must be a natural-born citizen of the United States over the age of 35. The press and the parties say he must be a he, white, not funny-looking or funny-talking, not of Greek descent or from Massachusetts, not a cancer survivor, nor a person who has ever sought psychological help for any purpose, not anyone too terribly thoughtful or philosophical or religious. He must have connections to millions of dollars. It doesn’t matter if those connections are unsavory; we all know that’s how the system works. He may play around with women, if he doesn’t do it blatantly. He must be able to produce cute soundbites, but not a considered opinion that takes more than 30 seconds to explain. He must avoid taking a principled stand on any issue in which anyone has an economic stake.
Which is to say, I can vote for someone who can win, or for someone who I think would be original enough, courageous enough, honest enough, outrageous enough to solve the nation’s deepest problems, but not both. “Brown?” laugh my Democratic friends. “Why throw away your vote?” Seems to me the way to throw away a vote is to hand it to the cluster around some bland, swaggering “winner.” Seems to me the only worthwhile way to use a vote is to cast it for what you believe in.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992