Well over a decade ago, while a student at the University of Virginia School of Law, some student publication, I believe it was the Virginia Advocate, the conservative student newspaper there, asked me to write a piece on whether or not then-President-elect Clinton’s was a strong leader. It was to appear next to that of a professor who saw that Democrat as a strong leader.
For some reason, the professor refused to have his piece appear alongside mine — and neither appeared in print. This being before blogs, I put my piece into the proverbial drawer; it never saw, so to speak, the light of day.
In that piece, I held that Clinton was not much of a leader because he was constantly shifting his positions in order to keep his standing with the public. He was not, I argued, a man of conviction. A leader stood by his beliefs and held firm even as public opinion shifted. A leader set the tone, told his followers what he believed needed be done, rather than turn to them for direction as Clinton did.
By this standard, my man Rudy Giuliani has proven to be a true leader. Setting the tone and standing firm even (or especially) in times of crisis. But, in the first few months of this premature presidential campaign, he has often had difficulty expressing himself. Decisive when in command, the former Mayor has frequently been (until the recent debate) equivocating and indecisive in pursuing the presidency.
It’s the ability to express himself where I underestimated Bill Clinton. Whereas I basically got him right by defining him as a poll-driven politician, someone who followed (rather than attempted to redefine) public opinion (after all, he was the guy who commissioned a poll on where he should take his vacation), I didn’t realize that he could use his considerable verbal skills (and charisma) to appear as a more decisive leader than he actually was.
Communication is key to leadership. It’s one reason Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez needs to resign. So far, aggressive congressional investigations have not been able to find that he committed any crime. But, he has blundered badly in explaining how the firing of the eight U.S. Attorneys. Republican Senator Norm Coleman, for example, “has lost confidence in his ability to lead the Justice Department..” The Attorney General wouldn’t be in this mess had he been able to explain how the Department went about doing something which was clearly the president’s prerogative.
To be a leader in the executive branch, it’s not enough just to do a good job (and keep from breaking laws), but you also have to be able to explain yourself to the American people — and to Congress. You need to be a good communicator.
It is such communication skills which make former Senator Fred Thompson a most appealing candidate to Republicans. He has demonstrated, as I’ve said before “ability to articulate conservative ideas.” And today, I read that my Athena, columnist Peggy Noonan pretty much agrees with me that Thompson is “running a great campaign.” Makes me feel good to see that her thoughts are similar to some I have already expressed, though she expressed hers with more grace and wisdom than I ever could.
Peggy notes, for example, the skill with which Thomspon responded to Michael Moore’s challenge to debate and writes that Thompson “thinks the one essential to modern presidential leadership, the one thing you must have now, in the age of terror, is the ability to communicate, and he reads himself as the best communicator.” In this great piece on Thompson, Peggy has more to say about Thompson and his campaign, so just read the whole thing, but this point bears repetition: Communication is an essential aspect of leadership.
BIll Clinton covered up his wavering stands and indecisiveness with his skills as a communicator. Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt use theirs to hold the nation together and to lead the world, improving both with their vision, their ideas and their policies. Had they not been able to express themselves as well as they did, they likely would not have accomplished nearly as much.
Unless my man Rudy shows better communication skills on the campaign trail (and he started to do so in the last debate), he will not have the chance to demonstrate as President of the United States the skills he showed as Mayor of our largest City. And it’s those very skills which make a man who has yet to show such leadership in executive office an appealing alternative for many Republicans.