January 2008

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You ever read those books with children’s letters to God? They’re hilarious. So I was excited when I saw a book called “Letters to the U.S. President” or something like that. I was hoping it would be children’s letters to the President or maybe crazy letters from adults along the lines of the Lazlo Toth letters (which are also hilarious). Unfortunately, most were letters from other world leaders. Interesting, to be sure, but not hilarious. Except for one letter from a little girl that was hilarious — and poignant at the same time. It was sent in 1943 and went something like this:

Dear Mr. Roosevelt,
I have an idea for how to improve the draft system. I suggest you draft people alphabetically.
Sincerely,
Carolyn Weatherbourg
Age 9

Obama Power

It’s not too late to jump on the Obama bandwagon. They need cash with Super Tuesday coming up so don’t be shy about donating. This is your chance to change the world. I gave $50 (not sure how much world-changing that buys me).

I can’t believe the Clinton meltdown in the weeks leading up to the South Carolina primary. Obama said in an ad that Hillary would say anything and do anything to get elected, and that seems true. She kept harping on the claim that Obama said he loved Reagan’s ideas when he never said that. He said Republicans were the party of ideas and vision during the Reagan years and he wants to transform the Democrats into that party of inspiration. The Clintons peddled lies (because that has so often worked in politics) but it seems to have backfired in South Carolina. Have voters finally figured out how separate truth from lies? Or has Obama just figured out how to combat lies? I don’t know. But on the issue of honesty, I thought this piece of the Nevada debate was very instructive.

What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? I’ve always hated this question in job interviews. I think it’s the sign of a lazy interviewer. But a quick google search indicates some interviewers like it because it’s an impossible question. They like to see if their job candidate can handle it. Other interviewers think it’s just an opportunity for shit-shoveling: the art of coming up with a weakness that is really a strength. I work too hard! I care too much! Other interviewers say that some people will list a real weakness that causes them to not get the job.

So what does it say that Obama, incredibly, actually lists a real weakness? I couldn’t believe it. A big mistake? Or a genius move that I’ve always hoped someone would try in politics — telling the truth, not half-truths. To me, it just sounds like he’s saying he needs a good chief of staff. But I love the fact that it’s not pure bullshit, like so much of what the Clintons sling our way.

Here’s the excerpt:

TIM RUSSERT: Senator Obama, you gave an interview to the Reno Gazette-Journal and you said, “We all have strengths and weaknesses.”

BRIAN WILLIAMS: You said one of your weaknesses is, quote, “I’m not an operating officer.” Do the American people want someone in the Oval Office who is an operating officer?

OBAMA: Well, I think what I was describing was how I view the presidency. Now, being president is not making sure that schedules are being run properly or the paperwork is being shuffled effectively.

It involves having a vision for where the country needs to go.

It involves having the capacity to bring together the best people and being able to spark the kind of debate about how we’re going to solve health care; how we’re going to solve energy; how we are going to deliver good jobs and good wages; how we’re going to keep people in their homes, here in Nevada; and then being able to mobilize and inspire the American people to get behind that agenda for change.

That’s the kind of leadership that I’ve shown in the past.

That’s the kind of leadership that I intend to show as president of the United States. So, what’s needed is sound judgment, a vision for the future, the capacity to tap into the hopes and dreams of the American people and mobilize them to push aside those special interests and lobbyists and forces that are standing in the way of real change, and making sure that you have a government that reflects the decency and the generosity of the American people.

That’s the kind of leadership that I believe I can provide.

RUSSERT: You said each of you have strengths and weaknesses. I want to ask each of you quickly, your greatest strength, your greatest weakness.

OBAMA: My greatest strength, I think is the ability to bring people together from different perspectives to get them to recognize what they have in common and to move people in a different direction. And as I indicated before, my greatest weakness, I think, is when it comes to — I’ll give you a very good example.I ask my staff member to hand me paper until two seconds before I need it because I will lose it. You know, the — you know…

(LAUGHTER)

And my desk and my office doesn’t look good. I’ve got to have somebody around me who is keeping track of that stuff. And that’s not trivial; I need to have good people in place who can make sure that systems run. That’s what I’ve always done, and that’s why we run not only a good campaign, but a good U.S. Senate office.

RUSSERT: Senator Edwards, greatest strength, greatest weakness?

EDWARDS: I think my greatest strength is that for 54 years, I’ve been fighting with every fiber of my being.

In the beginning, the fight was for me. Growing up in mill towns and mill villages, I had to literally fight to survive.

But then I spent 20 years in courtrooms fighting for children and families against really powerful well-financed interests. I learned from that experience, by the way, that if you’re tough enough and you’re strong enough and you got the guts and you’re smart enough, you can win. That’s a fight that can be won.

It can be won in Washington, too, by the way.

And I’ve continued that entire fight my entire time in public life.

So I’ve got what it takes inside to fight on behalf of the American people and on behalf of the middle class. I think weakness, I sometimes have a very powerful emotional response to pain that I see around me, when I see a man like Donnie Ingram, who I met a few months ago in South Carolina, who worked for 33 years in the mill, reminded me very much of the kind of people that I grew up with, who’s about to lose his job, has no idea where he’s going to go, what he’s going to do.

I mean, his dignity and self-respect is at issue. And I feel that in a really personal way and in a very emotional way. And I think sometimes that can undermine what you need to do.

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton?

CLINTON: Well, I am passionately committed to this country and what it stands for. I’m a product of the changes that have already occurred, and I want to be an instrument for making those changes alive and real in the lives of Americans, particularly children.

That’s what I’ve done for 35 years. It is really my life’s work. It is something that comes out of my own experience, both in my family and in my church that, you know, I’ve been blessed. I think to whom much is given, much is expected.

So I have tried to create opportunities, both on an individual basis, intervening to help people who have no where else to turn, to be their champion. And then to make those changes. And I think I can deliver change. I think I understand how to make it possible for more people to live up to their God-given potential.

I get impatient. I get, you know, really frustrated when people don’t seem to understand that we can do so much more to help each other. Sometimes I come across that way. I admit that. I get very concerned about, you know, pushing further and faster than perhaps people are ready to go.

But I think that, you know, there is a difference here. I do think that being president is the chief executive officer. I respect what Barack said about setting the vision, setting the tone, bringing people together. But I think you have to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy.

You’ve got to pick good people, certainly, but you have to hold them accountable every single day. We’ve seen the results of a president who, frankly, failed at that. You know, he went in to office saying he was going to have the kind of Harvard Business School CEO model where he’d set the tone, he’d set the goals and then everybody else would have to implement it.

And we saw the failures. We saw the failures along the Gulf Coast with, you know, people who were totally incompetent and insensitive failing to help our fellow Americans. We’ve seen the failures with holding the administration accountable with the no-bid contracts and the cronyism.

So I do think you have to do both. It’s a really hard job, and in America we put the head of state and the head of government together in one person. But I think you’ve got to set the tone, you’ve got to set the vision, you’ve got to set the goals, you’ve got to bring the country together.

And then you do have to manage and operate and hold that bureaucracy accountable to get the results you’re trying to achieve.

RUSSERT: Senator Obama, Senator Clinton invoked your name. I’ll give you a chance to respond.

OBAMA: Well, there’s no doubt that you’ve got to be a good manager. And that’s not what I was arguing. The point, in terms of bringing together a team, is that you get the best people and you’re able to execute and hold them accountable.

But I think that there’s something, if we’re going to evaluate George Bush and his failures as president, that I think are much more important. He was very efficient. He was on time all the time, and you know, and had…

(LAUGHTER)

You know, I’m sure he never lost a paper. I’m sure he knows where it is. What he could not do is to listen to perspectives that didn’t agree with his ideological predispositions.

What he could not do is to bring in different people with different perspectives and get them to work together.

What he could not do is to manage the effort to make sure that the American people understood that, if we’re going to go into war, that there are going to be consequences and there are going to be costs.

And we have to be able to communicate what those costs are; and to make absolutely certain that, if we’re going to make a decision to send our young men and women into harm’s way, that it’s based on the best intelligence and that we’ve asked tough questions before we went into fight.

I mean, those are the kinds of failures that have to do with judgment. They have to do with vision, the capacity to inspire people. They don’t have to do with whether or not he was managing the bureaucracy properly.

That’s not to deny that there has to be strong management skills in the presidency.

It is to say that what has been missing is the ability to bring people together, to mobilize the country, to move us in a better direction, and to be straight with the American people.

That’s how you get the American people involved.

There was an interesting piece in my latest Stanford Alumni Magazine. They asked a number of people what each thought was the most underrated discovery of their lifetime. Some of the answers were: the TV mute button, wheels on luggage, the memory stick, the discovery of REM sleep, and the rediscovery of other people in “the frenetic Information Age.” But the most intriguing response was this one, from a Stanford MBA graduate named Elise Bauer:

Ibuprofen is the only truly effective drug for menstrual cramps. Before ibuprofen, millions of women were completely debilitated with pain at least one full day every month. No wonder women didn’t truly take to the working world en masse until the late ’70s, early ’80s. This is the drug that allowed them to function reliably in the corporate world.

So, readers, what do you think is the most underrated discovery of your lifetime?

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