Posts Tagged ‘Politics’
Anger is a staple of modern public discourse. Perhaps, some people will say, that’s always been so. The fact that a mean spirited element has long existed makes it no less toxic.
Most of us have freshly burned in our memories people shouting down members of congress at August town hall meetings. And, in some cases, members of congress shouting back down their constituents. Fresher still are images of a member of congress shouting down the President during his address to a joint session of Congress. Immediately after, there was a spike in campaign contributions to the offending member of congress as well as his opponent.
In the social media sphere it is not uncommon to see anger filled political comments sprinkled among the updates on newborn nieces, vacation photos and business updates. Perhaps we share some of the anger we read in our respective news feeds. Perhaps some posts make us angrier still because we disagree – especially if we have not carefully filtered out all those who think differently.
In my community, I see anger expressed on a daily basis in our local newspaper. There is a section in the paper in which people can express anonymous sentiments about any subject of their choice. Each morning I read people sniping back and forth at one another over everything ranging from the Apostle Paul, to whether the President should make a speech to school children, to health care, to who knows what else. It’s like a car wreck. So many people I know feel sad by what they read but look religiously.
So many of us feel sorrowful about the current state of public discourse and yet the toxicity persists even amplifies. We listen to calls for civility with a cynical ear. We implore political candidates for office to be more civil not believing that they will. What we don’t often consider is that, perhaps or even probably, the conduct of political candidates is a reflection of their communities and that civility begins with each one of us.
Don Haddad, Superintendent of St. Vrain Valley Schools, suggested at a recent school board meeting that each of us can contribute to a more civil public realm. Here is what I took away from his remarks:
It has become a habit when we read, hear or see something which we don’t like to immediately express anger without thought or care for the consequences. We don’t consider how we might be stirring the cauldron of toxic public discourse.
We need a new reflex; a new habit. When we read, hear or see something which triggers an angry feeling inside, we must resist the temptation to express those emotions immediately, unfiltered. Instead, the feelings of concern should trigger each of us to ask questions, to learn more, to channel our feelings of anger into a learning opportunity. We may find where there is smoke there is no fire. Or, perhaps we will find a situation with enough complication that shouting each other down will do nothing but fan the flames and impede progress further. In either case knee jerk reactions of anger are not useful.
I appreciate Mr. Haddad’s remarks because I can act on his advice. I don’t need to wait for anyone else to take action first. And though I may find it hard on occasion it is a good standard to strive for.
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Also published in www.johncreighton.com
Are there some secrets people should take to the grave? Or, is it always best to come clean?
I’ve told this story to a few people so, perhaps in my case, these questions are moot. I also figure that after nineteen years the statute of limitations has surely passed.
George H. W. Bush, while President, came to Topeka to help Mike Hayden raise money for his 1990 re-election bid for Governor. President Bush gave a keynote address to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Kansas Expo Center. It was my opportunity to shake the hand of a sitting President – that’s really cool!
My perception of the elder Bush is that he’s a very gracious man. I will always remember the phone call he made to Mike on the morning after election defeat. Mike let those of us in the Cedar Crest kitchen listen in on speaker phone. President Bush conveyed his condolences in the most genuine way, “I’ve lost, too. It’s not fun but you’ll be fine.”
Grace is a quality that is highly undervalued especially in public life. George H.W. Bush had it.
It is quite exciting to be part of a Presidential event. It’s hard to escape the magnitude of what is happening when dozens of Secret Service agents arrive in advance to prep the venue for safety.
One precaution that is taken is building draped walkways to shield the President from public view when he is moving from one place to another. A long “tunnel” with two curves was built in the Expo Center from a room on the side of the main auditorium to the podium where President Bush would speak.
Several Hayden Campaign staff, including me, were given security clearances to help out back stage. There isn’t that much to do with the President’s advance team on the scene. But, at one point, I was enlisted to help.
I was handed a glass of water and told to put it on the podium. I took the glass and headed down the cloth draped hallway.
Juvenile thoughts still spring quickly to mind when you’re twenty-five years old. I must admit that my “be mature” filter designed to sift out bad ideas did not always work to its full capacity nineteen years ago. Sometimes the bad ideas seemed good in the moment.
I rounded the curve of the tunnel when a thought crossed my mind, “What if I took a tiny sip from this glass? Then, I could say I drank from the same glass as the President.” I didn’t have much time – twenty feet – to make a decision. I looked behind me and to the front. I was out of sight to the world.
I did it. I took a small sip. Then rushed to the podium and put the glass in its assigned location.
I felt guilty and rebellious. Would I get in trouble? Had I violated the campaign’s trust? Perhaps. But still…. what an opportunity.
The President and his entourage arrived a few minutes later. I found a spot along the side wall of the auditorium to watch the President’s speech. I watched. I didn’t listen. I waited in anticipation for him to take a drink. Finally, about mid-speech, he paused and took a long drink.
I did it. I could now say that I drank from the same glass as the President.
It didn’t occur to me until a few minutes later that most people would think, while rolling their eyes in disgust, “Are you really that juvenile?”
Sometimes, I guess I was. What can I say? Some brushes with fame are less glorious than others.
I’m not close to being in Johnny Cash’s league but I’ve been a few places. My work has taken me to 41 states and the District of Columbia.
I interview people for a living – in small groups and one-on-one. I get paid to ask people questions such as “What do you think?” And, “Why do you think that?” It’s not bad work if you can get it.
I’ve talked with folks rich and poor; old and young; black, white and brown about health care, education, politics, the environment, religion, immigration, taxes and U.S.-Russia relations just to name a few topics. I write reports about what people say. I advise clients, given what people think this is what you should do.
I spend a good deal of my time the past few years training people working in community organizations how to do this work for themselves – to ask their own questions, to do their own listening, to make their own judgments about what to do.
The great joy of this work is that I’ve had to the opportunity to learn from Americans from all walks of life – from executives to homeless. It is humbling to sit and listen to people tell stories about their lives.
I sang hymns with members of an African Methodist Episcopal church in inner city Atlanta. I’ve eaten pie with farmers in southeast North Dakota before talking about the environment.
I’ve been to Union halls in Michigan and Legion halls in Idaho. I’ve sat in cramped “community” rooms in rec centers in North Las Vegas and plush board rooms in New York City. I’ve been to factory floors and college campuses. I’ve had beers with Pulitzer Prize winning reporters in Tampa and with future governors and congressmen in Cleveland. I’ve stayed in hotels on Newport Beach and overlooking a deserted downtown in Flint, Michigan.
The conversations with people can get uncomfortable. A man in Miami had to be restrained from hitting me when I asked, “What would you say to someone who said, ‘Americans complain a lot.’” Thankfully another person in the group yelled, “He said he was going to play devil’s advocate.” The man replied, “He’s doing a damn good job of it.”
I had to intervene when two people from Michigan got into an argument about race relations.
People you’d never expect could find common ground just by listening to each other answer questions. In Albany, Georgia a woman said, “I pulled my kids out of public school because they can’t pray to God.” The woman next to her said, “I think they should give condemns to kids in high school.” I thought to myself, “This is going to be a long afternoon.” Long after the focus group came to an end the two women stood in the parking lot still talking. I saw them exchange phone numbers.
Some people I interview leave me speechless – not a good thing when you’re being paid to ask questions. I had to pause when…
- A man from Las Vegas told me about getting robbed at gunpoint in his own apartment and then declared, “This is the best place I’ve ever lived.”
- An older man crying because he’s harassed by his teenage neighbors and he didn’t know what to do.
- A group in southern Mississippi explaining why they think it makes sense for black and white students to have separate proms – in the late 1990s.
- A woman in Atlanta talking about her son being bullied and eventually taking his own life.
- A young mother from Andover, Kansas talking about what it was like to lose the family farm.
I tried not to slap my forehead when interviewing a group in Philadelphia about US-Russia relations. A man said, “Why don’t we just buy Russia.” The woman next to him asked, “Can we do that?”
I tried not to pull my hair out when a farmer from southwest Minnesota sat silently in a group for more than 90 minutes. “Brian,” I queried, “do you have any thoughts about the environmental issues we’ve been talking about?”
“Oh, I’ve got a lot of opinions about what people have been sayin’.”
“Do you care to share any with us?”
“Rather not,” he replied and didn’t say another word until he said good-bye.
The travel itself can be a bit of an adventure. I went to Las Vegas the first time when my plane was stuck in Denver and my boss’ plane was stuck in DC due to weather. My boss was supposed to give a speech in Las Vegas. I gave the speech. He stayed home.
Flying from Fargo to Minneapolis the cabin of our 16 seat plane filled with smoke. Our pilot assured us it was no big deal that he had to shut down one engine. It was slightly disconcerting to see the runway lined with fire trucks. But, I made it to Denver in time to watch KU play in the Sweet 16 – so life was good.
I’ve been in some jams, too – all minor of my own doing. On my first business trip after college, it didn’t occur to me to rent a car. We had to take a bus to Payless Cars because everyone else was sold out. My boss wasn’t happy when we arrived at our meeting an hour late.
I had to bang on the door of Brown’s Shoe Fit in Lincoln, Nebraska at 6 a.m. and beg the night accountant to sell me a pair of dress shoes. I was giving a speech to ten western governors at 8 a.m. and the only shoes I had were a pair of flip flops. They didn’t quite go with my suit.
My work takes me to many interesting places at interesting times. I was in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newsroom when editors and reporters argued over how to cover the discovery that Mark McGwire was taking Andro the summer he hit 70 home runs.
The O.J. Simpson verdict (for his murder trial) was announced while I was interview a group of Baltimore Sun reporters. The interview ended abruptly so they could publish a special edition of the newspaper. It was on the streets by the time I reached my car.
I stayed in the Marriott World Trade Center on 9/1/01 – far removed from the tragedy of 9/11 but weird for me.
Then Candidate Obama gave his speech on race and politics in March 0f 2008 in the wake of the controversy about his church pastor. I was with a group of about 50 people on that day. Thirty or so were African-American. The next day I was doing business on the Eastern Plains of Colorado. The reactions to the speech could not have been more different.
This week, I am in Detroit. I arrived the same day GM announced it is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I had the opportunity to interview people on the streets of downtown Detroit. The streets were clean. The people were friendly. There was resilience in the air. A testament to American’s fortitude. A reminder that it’s easy to have preconceived views about unfamiliar places.
I love to ask questions. I love to learn. But, it doesn’t always translate well to my personal life. Phil Priebe once declared that he’s not coming to our house for dinner if, “John’s going to ask a bunch of questions.” I try to tone it down.
I am grateful for the places my work has taken me – though I’m no fan of post 9/11 air travel or staying in hotel rooms. I feel fortunate to have heard the stories of thousands of Americans – each different but so similar.
We live at a time when media and politics emphasize our differences. Yet we all are more like the two women in Georgia who stayed late to exchange phone numbers in the parking lot. We all have so much in common and we’d know it if we just took the time to talk to each other.
As a woman in Detroit said this week, “I think we all want to live in communities that are safe, healthy, respectful, full of opportunities and are connected.”
I hear that everywhere, man!
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For those of you who made it to the end, here’s a little Johnny Cash.
One of the great experiences of my life was working on the 1986 Hayden for Governor Campaign. I was Mike’s driver for the primary campaign. There’s nothing quite like being on a winning team. I guess you could say it’s the only state champion team I ever played on.
My experience on the ’86 campaign solidified my interest in public policy and politics. I paid a lot of money to earn a public policy degree from Harvard. In the summer of ’86, I had the privilege of spending 12 to 14 hours per day with one of the best public policy thinkers I’ve ever met – and I didn’t have to pay a nickel of tuition.
I read How David Beats Goliath, an article by Malcolm Gladwell, last week. Gladwell tries to answer the question of how underdogs are able to win. The article reminded me of the ’86 Hayden Campaign.
Mike was easily the most qualified candidate for governor in ’86. He had served 14 years in the legislature and two terms as Speaker of the House. He was held in high regard by his colleagues. Anyone who worked with Mike understood his gift for public policy. That’s why more senior legislators chose Mike to be their Speaker.
Yet, Mike was still the underdog. The favorite was a Wichita business man named Larry Jones.
The Hayden Campaign had a fraction of the money in the Jones Campaign coffers. The Hayden Campaign had only two or three paid staff people, relying instead on many volunteers and family members – most of whom had never been part of a statewide campaign.
Kelley Hayden was our press secretary for gosh sakes. I would guess that Kelley is easily the most well read press secretary in the history of press secretaries – and perhaps the only press secretary PhD. He would make references that completely flew over campaign reporters’ heads, pointing out nuance to those reporters particularly slow on the uptake.
Mike’s biggest deficit, from the perspective of Johnson County politicos, was that he came from a hick town no one had ever heard of. Almost all of the Johnson County “in crowd” embraced Mike’s rival Larry Jones.
I remember sitting with Mike in the living room of a Johnson County state senator’s home. She told Mike she respected his work in the legislature but that she was going to support Jones in the primary. She just couldn’t imagine General Election voters supporting anyone from a town as far west as Atwood.
Mike and his campaign team knew how to turn these weaknesses into strengths. Gladwell writes that successful underdogs use their differences as an asset. They don’t try to conform to norms or traditions.
Mike certainly knew how to turn his “hick” status to his favor. He got a crowd of Republicans fired up at a Kansas Day gathering with what I think of as his haircut speech. “They tell me I shouldn’t run for Governor because I have a bad haircut. They tell me I shouldn’t run for Governor because my suit doesn’t fit right,” Mike bellowed (or whispered – it was hard to tell the difference with Mike).
By the time Mike was done, the crowd was on their feet cheering, “Run, Mike, run.”
Mike and the campaign team built a network of former Atwood residents who lived in all corners of the state to augment the network he built as a legislator. Some of Mike’s county chair people had never held a position of status in their local community – let alone at the state level.
Sages didn’t think such an inexperienced, rag tag group would have a chance against the well financed city candidate.
But Mike and his campaign volunteers had something that no amount of money could buy. It’s what Mike liked to call “fire in the belly.”
Mike, Patti and their supporters worked harder than anyone imagined possible. The ’86 Hayden Campaign was the equivalent of a full court press against the Jones’ Campaigns conventional half-court offense.
Gladwell points out in his article that underdog basketball teams almost always run a full court press when they are victorious. The lesson: effort – hard work – can make up for many other shortcomings.
There is no doubt that Hayden campaigners put in the hours. I don’t think it’s possible to account for all the work people did. That’s because, in ’86, people weren’t working to get noticed. The Hayden team was working to elect their candidate and then go home.
I can attest to how hard Mike and Patti worked in those summer months of ’86 because I was in the front seat of their van – of the Mickey RV. Mike got started before dawn at “Sunshine” Rotary Clubs. He stayed up well past his bed time (Mike was famous for wanting to go to bed early) attending county fairs, barbecues, candidate forums and fundraising events night after night after night.
I stood on the sidelines and ate cheese.
We easily put in 90 to 100 hour weeks all summer long. I had an apartment in Lawrence were I technically was staying during the primary campaign. I saw my roommate once.
The ’86 Hayden Campaign was unconventional in other ways, too. We stayed in people’s homes while we campaigned, never hotels. I slept on the floor in homes of people I’d never met.
We held fundraisers in which people contributed five, ten and fifteen dollars. Conventional wisdom was that a candidate should not waste their time attending an event unless guests are charged $100 a head.
I learned a lesson that summer. People give you ten dollars. They’ll likely recruit ten people to vote for you, too. A person gives you a thousand dollars. They’ll likely want an hour of your time.
The Hayden Campaign advertised in the weekly newspapers in all the small counties. Seasoned campaign consultants said that sort of thing was a waste of money. Even Mike’s professional consultants accepted the decision to advertise in weeklies begrudgingly – they did it to humor the candidate not because they thought it was a good idea. Winning campaigns, they said, focused all of their money on television and direct mail.
The city folk and seasoned campaign consultants were gloating when the early election returns came in from Wichita and Johnson County. Larry Jones had a big lead. Jones supporters chanted for the TV cameras, “Clean sweep, clean sweep.”
But, when returns started to arrive from the west, the Jones supporters were silent. Hayden’s margins of victory in the western counties were bigger than anyone would have imagined.
The Hayden victory in ’86 tracked almost exactly with the lessons Gladwell highlights in his article.
Underdogs who win aren’t afraid to be unconventional. Underdogs do things that the “elite” consider trivial or beneath their dignity – like going to $5 fundraisers or running ads in weekly newspapers.
Underdogs work hard. They understand that effort triumphs over talent. Mike didn’t sit back and say vote for me. I’m an accomplished and respected legislator. He and Patti worked twice as hard as any other candidate in the race. His volunteers did, too.
Underdogs are focused on the task at hand. Successful underdogs set out to achieve a specific goal. They’re not looking for admission into the “elite’s” clubs. Hayden Campaign volunteers weren’t looking to improve their status (though some did benefit). The goal was to elect a candidate we believed in.
I will be forever grateful to Mike for letting me “come along for the ride” on his ’86 campaign. He had good reason not to let me be part of his team (which I’ll write about at another time). But, he looked past the liabilities I brought to the campaign and gave me a chance.
I learned so many lessons. I met so many wonderful people. The campaign opened so many doors for me. It was truly a life changing experience.
And, I will forever have the memory of being part of a team like “Hoosiers.” The underdog team that beat Goliath doing things the unconventional way.
There really is nothing quite like the thrill of being part of winning team like that. It is a small moment in time that lasts forever.
From time to time, I give speeches and talks based on my public opinion research. This is one of my speech lines: Americans have become accidental extremists. None of us meant to be, nor do we want to be, outlandish partisans. And, yet, so many of us are.
We live in echo chambers listening to only points of view that reinforce our own. We seldom seek out opinions that conflict with our views. When we hear them we make little effort to understand.
In the speeches I give, I talk about how this came about. We cherry pick our news. No longer do we all watch or read the same news. “Conservatives” watch Fox News. “Liberals” watch MSNBC. “Conservatives” listen to Rush Limbaugh. “Liberals” listened to Al Franken – before he ran for U.S. Senate.
People who study how we live have documented that we are clustering into enclaves. We tend to live and play with people who think just like we do. Sure, there are exceptions to this pattern but fewer all the time. No matter whether you tend to vote Republican or Democrat, the odds are that most of the people who live near you voted the same way. There are very few 50-50 or even 60-40 communities in our nation.
Psychologists have done studies to try to understand what happens when we spend all our time with people who think just like we do. The short answer is we become more extreme.
There is a human tendency to want to have the “middle” opinion in our social group. People fit in best when their views are neither extreme left nor right compared to their friends. If we spend our time with “liberals,” we’re likely to become more liberal. If we spend our time with “conservatives,” we’re likely to become more conservative.
Points of view that would be considered extreme in a mixed circle of friends are deemed reasonable when everyone thinks the same.
That’s what is happening in America. The extreme has become acceptable – at least among our friends.
I see this all the time in my own life. I drive about Boulder County and see bumper stickers using George W. Bush’s name as profanity – still. Some are so crude I hope upon hope that my children don’t ask what they mean. Rather than express outrage at the crass language, many Boulder residents laugh or shake their head in agreement. Well educated people seem to take pride in their ability to trash talk like juveniles.
I travel to the Eastern Plains of Colorado and hear people question President Obama’s religion and citizenship – still. Driving on the plains I tune my dial to the talk radio shows that air for hours each day. These shows are filled with callers who clamor for Congress to impeach President Obama. Rather than say, “Don’t be absurd,” hosts and fans of these shows say, “Here, here.”
Behavior we would never tolerate from our children we accept as normal in the political realm. That’s true in liberal circles. That’s true in conservative circles. The one thing that both modern conservatives and liberals seem to share in common is a complete disregard for decorum and grace.
I’m not immune from the accidental extremism that has infected our nation. I get caught up in these debates sometimes, too. But, that’s not who I want to be. This is not what I want my country to be.
It is considered acceptable to call politicians liars and crooks and thieves. Some politicians have acted in such scandalous ways that they deserve these labels.
But next time we’re trashing a politician perhaps we should pause for a moment and reflect. How did it come to be this way?
The harsh truth is that our politicians are a reflection of us. Politicians have become more partisan, more bitter because we Americans have become more extreme. Recent polling data suggests that we are more polarized as a nation than any time since polls have been taken.
We face big challenges in our towns and our country. We can’t make progress if all we do is bicker and blame. We must heal the wounds that divide us. That work must begin at home. In each of our homes.
I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. His thesis is simple: The context in which you grow up matters.
· What are the norms, rules and habits of your community’s culture?
· What do you have access to when you’re coming of age?
· What are the skills you are able to practice over and over?
· Are you the right age and demographic to take advantage of opportunities?
The answers to these questions will have a lot to say about what you accomplish as an adult according to Gladwell.
Bill Gates, for instance, transferred to a junior high school that had access to computers before most universities. He was able to practice computer programming for hundreds of hours before many of his peers were able to practice at all.
Steve Martin explains in his memoir Born Standing Up (but not in Gladwell’s book) that he grew up a bike ride away from Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. He got a job in these parks at a young age and was able to hone his skills as an entertainer for years before he “burst onto the entertainment scene.”
As I read, I began to ask myself what is the competitive advantage one gains from coming of age in Atwood in the late 70s and early 80s? The answer, in my case, reinforces Gladwell’s thesis.
I am not a good athlete. Even if I was, the odds are low I could have developed such a talent in Atwood according to Gladwell – not enough access to practice time. Even small cities like Longmont, it is possible to practice one sport year round. This type of specialization, Gladwell suggests, is typical of those who rise to the top in their field.
Those of us growing up in Atwood did have better access to something that is scarce to those living in small and large cities – civic life and politics.
Playing an active role in the community – being active in civic clubs, serving on boards and committees, holding elective office. In cities, these are things that “they” do. In towns like Atwood, these are things that we do. Our friends, neighbors, acquaintances must play a role. The law of numbers dictates that a high proportion of small town folks are also active community leaders – whether they like it or not.
I serve on the St. Vrain School Board. The district has nearly 25,000 students and seven municipalities. There are seven school board members. The same number as in Rawlins County. Most people who live in the St. Vrain school district don’t have a clue who I am. I am a “them.”
Politics and civic life have been part of my life from my earliest memories. I sat on my father’s shoulders in 1968 as he stapled Dole for Senate placards on telephone and electric poles around town.
I went door-to-door for the first time in 1972 when Mike Hayden first ran for the state legislature. The pizza party at Mike and Patti’s house later that night may have been the first time I met Joni. The thing I remember most on that day was a man who lived on 8th Street shooing me from his yard, “I’m votin’ for Hayden. Keep your dang flyer.”
Mom and Dad both served on town boards. Mom was on the Library board. Dad was on the Hospital board when Dr. Walton abruptly left town. I remember looking through the window of the State Bank Meeting room as Dad presided over a full meeting to sort out the options when Dr. Walton left.
Dad was County Attorney for a spell and became mayor my senior year of high school. My dad liked to tell people that our kids – Emma, Joe and Ada Grace – are the only people alive who had a grandfather and a grandmother who both served as Atwood’s mayor (Betty Mickey is the current mayor).
My neighbors served on boards and held elected office, too. When I think about the people who I knew best growing up, most did a stint in some sort of public service. The people who governed community organizations, the town and county were the same people who you saw at school events, church and grocery store.
I had opportunities to serve on community boards myself – and not just student council. I was a youth board member of United Methodist Church. I took part in many civic events as a member of 4-H, Boy Scouts and MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship). Being active in the community was a normal part of life. Not as much in bigger cities.
Many of us growing up in Atwood were able to have a taste of state politics and government thanks to Mike Hayden. We had the opportunity to serve as legislative pages, sometimes more than once. It was normal to have your picture taken with a governor.
When Mike ran for governor in 1986 I was the perfect age (21) and had the family financial means to take on an unpaid, 80 to 100 hour week job as his driver. I was able to do this without jeopardizing my ability to pay for college. Not an option for many.
With assistant to the eventual governor on my resume, I was able to overcome borderline grades to earn a nomination for a Rhoades Scholar interview from KU and then gain admittance to Harvard. As one person who nominated me for the interview said matter of fact, “Your grades are unimpressive. But, you’ve had some good experiences.”
These were my advantages:
· I had many role models in my life who taught me that playing an active role in the community and politics is necessary and good.
· I was from a town and state small enough that I was able to witness government up close not from a distant gallery. Kansas has 65 more legislators than Colorado and, now, a smaller population.
· I was from the right town, the right age and the right income level to take advantage of a family friend’s success as a candidate for governor. Who knows if I’m admitted to Harvard if Mike lost the primary in ’86.
All of these things played a role in shaping my career working with public sector organizations and public leaders.
That is Gladwell’s argument. Success requires hard work. Typically, years of hard work. It also requires good fortune.
I draw three lessons from Gladwell’s work.
· We need to pay attention when opportunity presents itself. Opportunity is more abundant than we sometimes think.
· We need to be prepared to work hard – sometimes very hard – or the opportunity may pass us by.
· When we experience success, we should remain humble. There are a lot of people – and typically a few lucky breaks – that helped us get to where we are. (For fans of Ayn Rand, she didn’t have a clue.)
Community: That was my Atwood advantage.
My town is so small… How small is it?
Didn’t that type of joke become popular on the Gong Show?
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I am spending the week with a group of people from all parts of the country – Washington, DC; Las Vegas; Cincinnati; Louisville, KY; Detroit and Battle Creek, Michigan.
As tends to happen when you spend an extended period of time with people, small talk turns to hometowns. Some people in the group believe that they are from small towns. Battle Creek, after all, has a population of just over 50,000. The city folk certainly think that’s small.
In this group, only I know the “truth.”
I pepper people with Atwood facts to give them perspective about a real small town. (Even casual acquaintances in Longmont will tell you I’m always at the ready to talk – bore people with? – Atwood stats).
· Population 1,300 give or take. About 3,000 in the county.
· More people lived in my college dorm than in my town.
· 44 in my high school graduating class – though Natalie Ruda has been able to boost those numbers with her effective networking with former classmates.
· The town is roughly 8 blocks by 16 blocks – plus the lake and the golf course.
· My dad would round the circumference of two or three times on his morning run.
· The nearest town of 10,000 was more than two hours away – Hays. Remember, I lived in Atwood when the speed limit was 55.
· Denver is the closest town with a population of more than 50,000. At this point in the conversation, I sometimes have to remind people from the coasts that Kansas and Colorado are boarder states.
· It took me seven hours to drive to the state college – again, the 55 mile an hour speed limit.
· I only had to make three left turns from my house in Atwood to reach my fraternity house in Lawrence – okay, that’s not really relevant but I think it’s kind of cool.
All of this begs the question, why? Why do I want people to understand Atwood’s size? It’s remoteness?
It’s a point of pride. I like people to know I’m from a place that is unique. A place some people can’t even imagine.
I confess, my pride is stoked in part by a small chip that’s been sitting on my shoulder for nearly twenty years.
When I attended grad school, I perceived and experienced a disdain for people from rural America. Not all of my classmates to be sure. But, the disdain – or perhaps disregard is a better word – for rural Americans popped up from time to time. (It’s a good reminder to me that even small, unintended insults can have a lasting impact. I know I’m guilty, too.)
One experience to which I took mild offense was unintended. The person thought she was offering a compliment. “You’re pretty smart for a person from such a small town,” she remarked.
“Did you really say that,” I asked? She’s a good person and we’re still friends.
On another occasion, I was in a campaigns and politics class. Our professor showed commercials from a variety of candidate and issue campaigns. One ad featured a man from rural Tennessee. He stood in a thicket , wearing overalls. He belted out the punch line of the ad in a thick southern drawl, “They can have my gun when they pry off my cold, dead finger.”
Many of my classmates burst out in laughter. The professor, chuckling himself, had to intervene to restore order. I overheard classmates mock the man in the ad doing very bad southern impersonations.
A classmate who grew up in rural Wisconsin was so offended he picked up his books and left. “I’m outta this place (the class not the school),” he whispered to me as he exited the room. I understood.
The chip on my shoulder is almost gone. I rarely feel its weight. But, the pride in Atwood remains.
Very few people grow up in and are shaped by a town like Atwood. I’m proud to let people know. I do so every time I have the slightest opportunity.
The year was 1975. Or, perhaps, it was the spring of 1976. I was 10 years-old and in the fifth grade.
There was a big tadoo on the playground that must have been spilling into the classroom. I don’t remember many details. It involved boys tormenting girls or scuffling among themselves to show off for girls – one of those things that fifth grade boys do to demonstrate their affection for fifth grade girls. The problems were significant enough that our teachers felt compelled to intervene.
I don’t remember the early warnings to “cool it.” I don’t remember the late warnings to “shape up or else.” Hey, I was 10.
I do have vivid memories of the final decree: Until further notice boys and girls will play on separate sides of the playground.
A segregated recess? I was outraged! I had never experienced such an injustice!
The truth is I don’t remember if I was really mad or not. I do remember that I was bound and determined to do something about it. We should be able to decide for ourselves who we play with at recess.
Our fifth grade was divided into two classes. Mrs. Ottem taught one class. I was in Mr. Weishapl’s class. Mrs. Ottem and Mr. Weishapl traded classrooms once each day (the students stayed in their own rooms). The teachers made the swap so that each could focus on their specialty. I believe Mr. Weishapl taught social studies and Mrs. Ottem English.
I checked in with a few classmates at lunch about the recess decree. We decided it was time to get organized.
That afternoon, I put together a petition and two signature sheets – one for each class. On the petition, I outlined our demands. My guess is they read something like this: The fifth grade class would like girls and boys to be able to play together at recess. We don’t think it’s fair that they can’t.
The next morning I circulated the signature sheets. A classmate took one for Mrs. Ottem’s class. It probably took us a day or two but before too long nearly every student in both classes endorsed the petition. I was feeling confident.
I’m fuzzy on some of the details but I think that Amy, or maybe Jan, took responsibility for delivering the petition and signature sheets to the teachers. I was a ring leader but not always courageous enough to do all the work myself. Okay, I’ll say it, I put my classmates up to things.
On the day of petition delivery, Mr. Weishapl left the room to teach in Mrs. Ottem’s class just the way he did every day – walking with purpose, tie straight, suspenders over his neatly starched shirt, a book under one arm, a ruler in his other hand – looking like the man who had started his teaching career in a one room school house decades earlier.
I sat in the back row in nervous anticipation. I knew he would soon learn about our recess demands.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, Mr. Weishapl was storming back through the classroom door. He kept charging toward the front speaking in his loudest voice (he never yelled), “You’ve just earned yourself four swats mister.”
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind who he was talking to. All heads turned in my direction. I slunk down in my chair turning beet red. I knew my immediate fate.
I wasn’t really scared of Mr. Weishapl’s paddle – neatly sanded with four evenly spaced holes drilled to cut through the wind. Corporal punishment was a common practice in our school and in Mr. Weishapl’s class in particular. I was a regular participant.
Mr. Weishapl kept a record of how many swats he gave to each student over the course of the year. We were allowed to sign his paddle at year’s end in order of tallies, highest to lowest. I was easily one of the leaders. I knew my signature would be near the top. It turned the classroom penal system into a badge of honor.
Not fear but embarrassment is what caused me to slump in my chair. Mr. Weishapl’s loud reaction made me feel like I’d been caught with my hand in a cookie jar. Or, more likely, I was feeling betrayed by and guilty about those I had convinced to deliver the petitions. I knew I had shirked the most difficult task.
In retrospect, I imagine that is what made Mr. Weishapl angry. He could tolerate an occasional challenge to his authority. He had no patience for me or anyone else manipulating our classmates.
“Creighton,” Mr. Weishapl called boys only by their last name. “Front and Center!”
I walked slowly to the front of the room from my place in the back. The entire class was silent watching my progression. I reached Mr. Weishapl’s side and assumed the position without being asked.
What I wasn’t counting on is that Mr. Weishapl had misplaced his paddle.
He removed his belt. Four deliberately paced lashes to my hind quarters. It hurt as much as anything I remember including my broken bones.
I shuffled back to my seat head drooped eyes swelling with water. I was determined not to let a single tear drop. This was the game. Be tougher than the punishment. I knew if I made a sound I would be unable to control my pent up sobs.
I sat the rest of the day in silence shifting from one side of my butt to the other trying to ease the sting.
The playground decree was rescinded. Order had been restored. No one was in the mood to cross Mr. Weishapl but we had accomplished our objective. Girls and boys could play together again.
We were happy. He was happy. I was sore.
Mr. Weishapl treated me as if nothing had happened the next day. He never held a grudge. Once the appropriate measure of punishment had been delivered the issue was over for him.
I have nothing but affectionate memories of my year in Mr. Weishapl’s class. But I still remember the sting of that belt.
I learned important lessons that day; lessons I draw on even now.
You can stand up against real and perceived injustices but you may incur serious pain from your efforts. Go in with your eyes open.
And, if you’re going to be a ring leader, you must be prepared to walk on point at the moment of truth. There is no standing behind others.
If I had it all to do over again knowing the belt would follow… Yea, I think that I probably would.
On this first day of the Obama presidency I am reminded of some of my political experiences.
I was a personal assistant to Mike Hayden in 1986. At the time, he was the Kansas Speaker of the House and a candidate for Governor. He was and is a family friend and great-uncle to my children. The campaign ran on a shoe string budget and depended on many volunteers like me.
My responsibilities were to keep the candidate on schedule, chauffeur, provide him with quick bios of the people who we met at each stop and make sure he didn’t have change in his pockets when it was time to speak – he had a bad habit of jiggling the change with his hand while speaking. It was a seven day, 80 to 90 hour a week job for over four months. Not much by today’s campaign standards perhaps but a new experience for me.
Late in the general election the state’s heavy hitters came to help campaign. We were joined by Senator Bob Dole for a two day swing in late October. Senator Dole was not just the most prominent politician in Kansas history, he was a national and international heavy weight as well.
Our two days of campaigning with the Senator were at once intimant and completely non-personal. Driving between stops there would be just four people in the vehicle – me, Mike, the Senator and his traveling aide. The only people who talked were Mike and Senator Dole. The Senator said about a dozen words to me the entire time we were together.
The most intimate setting was a plane ride from western to eastern Kansas. It was a small, private jet. The passenger cabin contained four seats – swivel chairs with tables in the middle similar to those you’d find in an RV.
Before I continue the story I need to mention that Senator Dole was physically handicapped. His right arm was all but destroyed during battle in World War II. Most Kansans of my generation and older are intimately familiar with the story of Dole’s long rehabilitation. More casual observers might notice that Senator Dole always held a pen in his right hand – he did this to discourage people from trying to shake his right hand. Bottom line, the arm and hand were of no use to him at all.
When we boarded the private jet to travel across Kansas, four meals of brisket and cole slaw were handed to Dole’s aide who distributed them on the two tables. I sat across a table from Senator Dole and his aide took the seat across the table from Mike. Mike and Dole’s aide opened their Styrofoam boxes and began to eat. Senator Dole, looking at and talking to Mike, pushed his box across the table toward me.
I had started to open my own meal but paused, unsure what to do. Receiving no direction (not even eye contact) from the Senator I glanced over at his aide. He made a cutting motion with his plastic silver ware and the light bulb went off in my mind. I reached across the table and picked up the Senator’s plastic ware. I opened his box of brisket and cut the open-faced sandwich into bite size pieces. Without saying a word, the Senator was still talking to Mike, I pushed the box back across the table to his side. He immediately began to eat.
When I reflect on that experience, two things come to mind. Powerful people have a unique capacity to elicit help without sound. Senator Dole gave me “orders” without ever an exchange. Perhaps it was a bit rude but I was a 21 year-old kid who was drinking up every moment of the experience. I didn’t mind in the least.
The more important lesson I draw from this experience is that no matter how powerful a person becomes they need help. Senator Dole, due to his physical limitations, needed help with routine tasks. The type of help people – even powerful people – need varies. But, none of us can make it through a typical day without a little support.
A humbling reminder for us all.
As Martin Luther King Day and Inaugaration Day draw near, it seems an appropriate time to post an essay I wrote last year. It was published in the Longmont Daily Times-Call.
Our country is filled with hope and angst as our first African-American president prepares to take office. I would love to have one afternoon to talk about this historic time with my father. I am reminded of him as Inaugaration Day draws near. I am always reminded of him when MLK Day approaches (see below).
My father was politically astute. He predicted the election turmoil of 2000 (except he thought the situation would be reversed – Bush winning popular vote and Gore the election). He is a man who voted for Richard Nixon three times. Yet, in March 2007, he said about Barack Obama, “He’s the real deal.”
Here’s what I wrote this week last year…
This week, I took out my set of cassette tapes, A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. These recordings are a collection of Dr. King’s sermons delivered from his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (and other churches). I like to re-listen each January, typically while walking on the treadmill in the loft of our garage.
My tradition takes on new meaning this year. I think of my father now when I pick up the box of tapes.
I had the joy of spending long days with my father the last week of his life. While recounting memorable experiences, he remarked, “I shed a tear the day Martin Luther King was shot. You might think it odd that a white man from an all white town in the middle of the country would cry for a black man from the South.”
“Why did you cry?” I asked.
My father was a man of facts, not reflections. “I’ve never thought about it much,” he said. After a silence, he added, “He gave his life to make our country better. Maybe that’s why.”
King certainly made great contributions to our country. He deserves to be honored with a national holiday. But, I value King’s sermons for a personal reason. His words inspire me to do better. I listen in January not to celebrate the holiday but to kick-start my resolutions.
My favorite King sermon is “Loving Your Enemies.” King tells his congregation that Jesus knowingly asked us to do something very difficult. But, King explains, in fact love and compassion are practical responses to life’s challenges. Hate and anger are impractical, even counterproductive.
An example King gives in his sermon is about a time he and his brother were traveling at night on a highway. Car after approaching car failed to dim their lights, making it hard for King’s brother, who was driving, to see. In frustration, Kings’ brother declared that the next passing car that left the lights on high beam would receive the same treatment in return (how many of us have done this?).
King chided his brother, asking what good that would do except put passengers in both cars at greater risk of an accident.
American politics, these past 16 years, has been blinded by the high beams of anger and spite. In the 1990s, Republicans were consumed by their loathing of the Clintons. This decade, Democrats can barely see beyond their visceral distaste for the Bush Administration.
Both sides devote countless hours to belittling one another. A book and talk show industry are built on these practices. Imagine what might have been accomplished, if the creativity devoted toward proclaiming how much we loath one another had been directed toward a constructive purpose.
Indeed, over these past 16 years, the vineyards of public policy have produced little fruit. Our hate-induced paralysis stymies efforts to deal with matters such as health care and entitlement reform. The articles written today about problems and solutions are essentially the same as they were two decades ago. For all intents and purposes we have wasted a generation of public life.
We witness hatefulness in our own communities, too. I hear people declare distaste for the overtly religious. I see hatefulness toward people from Mexico, in particular those who enter our country without proper documents.
How do we get past the hate? Dr. King offers suggestions. In character, he says we must start with ourselves. What is the source of hate we feel in our own hearts?
King suggests that hate toward others bubbles up when we sense weakness in ourselves. For instance, why are some of us turned off by the overtly religious? Is it because we lack spirituality in our own lives? And, why do some of us feel such hostility toward people who risk their lives to sneak into our country in search of a better life for their family? Perhaps, born in America, we don’t feel deserving of the abundant opportunities granted to us by virtue of birth rather than effort.
I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. I also know people’s anger sometimes derives from reasonable concerns. The overtly religious sometimes go too far, injecting piety into public life. And, illegal immigration undermines the rule of law that is a basis of our nation’s prosperity.
But doesn’t it seem that the revulsion for one another we hear expressed over the airwaves, in print and at times in our inner circles far exceeds what is reasonable?
Many of us will spend this Martin Luther King Day in individual pursuits. The notion of a holiday worthy of a celebration may never cross our minds. I don’t imagine Dr. King would expend much energy worrying about all that. But, I can imagine what Dr. King might suggest as a fitting holiday tribute.
Perhaps, Dr. King would tell us that on this day we don’t need to attend public celebrations. Instead, he might call on each of us to stay home, look in the mirror and ask, “How will I demonstrate love for my enemies?”