Topic 4: The role of a leader in politics

Text 1

Pre-reading activity:

1. Consider the choices below as you elaborate on the role of political leaders and your own criteria for support.

I v o t e f o r a p o l i t i c i a n

2. 1) who has a good personality

3. 2) who is married and has a happy family life

4. 3) whose ideas I agree with

5. 4) who has a good education

6. 5) who has no health problems

7. 6) who has worked in Government before

8. 7) who is a worshipper

9. 8) who has specialized knowledge

10. 9) who I think will be a strong leader

11. 10) who is honest

How to be a leader

Michael Korda

( Newsweek on January 5, 1981.)

At a moment when we are waiting to see whether we have elected a President or a leader, it is worth examining the differences between the two. For not every President is a leader, but every time we elect a President we hope for one, especially in times of doubt and crisis. In easy times we are ambivalent – the leader, after all, makes demands, challenges the status quo, shakes things up.

Leadership is as much a question of timing as anything else. The leader must appear on the scene at a moment when people are looking for leadership, as Churchill did in 1940, as Roosevelt did in 1933, as Lenin did in 1917. And when he comes, he must offer a simple, eloquent message.

Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who cut through argument; debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand and remember. Churchill warned the British to expect ”blood, toil, tears and sweat”; FDR told Americans that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; Lenin promised the war-weary Russians peace, land and bread. Straightforward but potent messages.

We have an image of what a leader ought to be. We even recognize the physical signs: leaders may not necessarily be tall, but they must have bigger-than-life, commanding features – LBJ’s nose and ear lobes, Ike’s broad grin. A trademark also comes in handy: Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, JFK’s rocker. We expect our leaders to stand out a little, not to be like ordinary men. Half of President Ford’s trouble lay in the fact that, if you closed your eyes for a moment, you couldn’t remember his face, figure or clothes. A leader should have an unforgettable identity, instantly and permanently fixed in people’s minds.


It also helps for a leader to be able to do something most of us can’t: FDR overcame polio; Mao swam the Yangtze River at the age of 72. We don’t want our leaders to be “just like us”. We want them to be like us but better, special, more so. Yet if they are too different, we reject them. Adlai Stevenson was too cerebral. Nelson Rockefeller, too rich.

Even television, which comes in for a lot of knocks as an image-builder that magnifies form over substance, doesn’t altogether obscure the qualities of leadership we recognize, or their absence. Television exposed Nixon’s insecurity, Humphrey’s fatal infatuation with his own voice.

A leader must know how to use power (that’s what leadership is about), but he also has to have a way of showing that he does. He has to be able to project firmness – no physical clumsiness (like Ford), no rapid eye movements (like Carter). A Chinese philosopher once remarked that a leader must have the grace of a good dancer, and there is a great deal of wisdom to this. A leader should know how to appear relaxed and confident. His walk should be firm and purposeful. He should be able, like Lincoln, FDR, Truman, Ike and JFK, to give a good, hearty, belly laugh, instead of the sickly grin that passes for good humor in Nixon or Carter. Ronald Reagan’s training as an actor showed to good effect in the debate with Carter, when by his easy manner and apparent affability, he managed to convey the impression that in fact he was the President and Carter the challenger.

If we know what we’re looking for, why is it so difficult to find? The answer lies in a very simple truth about leadership. People can only be led where they want to go. The leader follows, though a step ahead. Americans wanted to climb out of the Depression and needed someone to tell them they could do it, and FDR did. The British believed that they could still win the war after the defeats of 1940, and Churchill told them they were right.

A leader rides the waves, moves with the tides, understands the deepest yearnings of his people. He cannot make a nation that wants peace at any price go to war, or stop a nation determined to fight from doing so. His purpose must match the national mood. His task is to focus the people’s energies and desires, to define them in simple terms, to inspire, to make what people already want seem attainable, important, within their grasp.

Above all, he must dignify our desires, convince us that we are taking part in the making of great history, give us a sense of glory about ourselves. Winston Churchill managed, by sheer rhetoric, to turn the British defeat and the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 into a major victory. FDR’s words turned the sinking of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor into a national rallying cry instead of a humiliating national scandal. A leader must stir our blood, not appeal to our reason.


For this reason, businessmen generally make poor leaders. They tend to be pragmatists who think that once you’ve explained why something makes sense, people will do it. But history shows the fallacy of this belief. When times get tough, people don’t want to be told what went wrong, or lectured, or given a lot of complicated statistics and plans (like Carter’s energy policy) they don’t understand. They want to be moved, excited, inspired, consoled, uplifted – in short, led!

A great leader must have a certain irrational quality, a stubborn refusal to face facts, infectious optimism, the ability to convince us that all is not lost even when we’re afraid it is. Confucius suggested that, while the advisers of a great leader should be as cold as ice, the leader himself should have fire, a spark of divine madness.

He won’t come until we’re ready for him, for the leader is like a mirror, reflecting back to us our own sense of purpose, putting into words our own dreams and hopes, transforming our needs and fears into coherent policies and programs.

Our strength makes him strong; our determination makes him determined; our courage makes him a hero; he is, in the final analysis, the symbol of the best in us, shaped by our own spirit and will. And when these qualities are lacking in us, we can’t produce him; and even with all our skill at image building, we can’t fake him. He is, after all, merely the sum of us.

Post-reading activities:

1. Paraphrase underlined words and expressions.

2. Find the thesis in the essay and provide evidence for it.

3. Below is a set of criteria according to which some people choose their leaders. Fill out this table and ask a few peers for their views as well. Comment on the received data.


1 2 3 4 5 6 7

A. Experience in government ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

B. Male ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

C. White Protestant ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

D. From a large (population) city ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

E. Married ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

F. Wealthy ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

G. Lawyer or businessman ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

H. Physically attractive ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

I. Over 50 years old ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

J. Military service ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

Text 2

Pre-reading activity:

1. In small groups, discuss the Russian tradition (or any other tradition that you are familiar with) of presenting presidential candidates to the public. Point to specific characteristics associated with these individuals and their political platforms.

Framing the Candidates: A Closer Look at Biography Videos

by Henry Jenkins

George Lakoff's book, Don't Think About an Elephant, has been one of the most influential arguments about the nature of American politics to emerge in recent years. Lakoff, a linguist, turned his attention to the "framing" of political discourse. If you want to look more closely at his argument, "A Man of His Words" is an online excerpt which pulls out most of the ideas that are going to interest us here. Lakoff argues that the Democrats lose elections even though they often have the facts on their side because the Republicans typically frame the debate. Consider for example the ways McCain, a Republican, has transformed the current energy crisis from one which might deal with the environment or economics or alternative energy to one which rises and falls on the question of off-shore drilling. Or consider the ways that the Republicans have deployed terms like "maverick" and "reformer" to distance themselves from the Bush administration. To turn this around, the Democrats need to reinvent themselves -- not by shifting their positions but by altering the frame. As Lakoff explains, "Reframing is social change.... Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense." Much of the early excitement around Obama was that he seemed to offer the most compelling new way to "reframe" progressive politics and thus offered a way out of failed rhetoric of the past. For some, this is about style over substance or a matter of "just words," but Lakoff argues that framing is about a structure of ideas that gets evoked through particular words and phrases but has its own deep logic that shapes how and what we think. In a simple yet suggestive analysis, Lakoff characterizes progressive and reactionary politics in terms of what he calls the Nurturing Parent and the Strict Father frames. According to the Strict Father model, Lakoff writes, "the world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. ...Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right." The strict father "dares to discipline" his family and supports a president who will discipline the nation and ultimately, the world. According to the progressive "nurturing parent" scenario, "Both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. ...The parents' job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others." Swing voters share aspects of both world views. The goal of politics, Lakoff suggests, is to "activate your model in the people in the middle" without pushing them into the other camp. We can see this as almost a reverse of old-style Christian doctrine in which the relation of a husband to his wife or a father to his child is supposed to mirror the relations of God to man. In this case, the family becomes a microcosm through which we can understand the relationship of the president to the nation and the world. This is consistent with an argument that I put forth in the introduction to The Children's Culture Reader that the Republicans and the Democrats both use the figure of the child as a rhetorical device in talking about their visions for the future of the country, but they understand the family in very different terms. In an analysis of the 1996 GOP and Democratic national conventions, I contrasted Hillary Clinton's deployment of the phrase "It takes a village to raise a child" with oft-cited Republican images of the family as a "fort" defending its members against a hostile world.

As a teacher, I've found that one of the best ways to introduce this important argument to my classes has been to engage in a critical comparison between the official campaign biography videos, shown at the national conventions, and intended to link the candidate's personal narrative with the larger themes of the campaign. First, a few general points. Students often react to these videos when they first see them as if they were documentaries, straight forward presentations of the facts of the candidates' lives. If Obama and McCain tell very different stories, it is because they led very different lives. And this is of course partially true. The videos mobilize elements from the candidate's biographies to construct narratives about them which are designed to introduce them to the American people. For many votes, these videos and the acceptance speeches are the first time they are paying attention to these candidates. Yet, keep in mind the role selectivity plays here -- we can't tell everything about their lives in a short video. There's also the question of framing -- what gets said by the candidate, by the people in his or her family, by others, and by the narrator -- which helps us to understand this person in specific ways. And then there's the matter of technique -- what kinds of images do we see, what role does the music play in setting the tone for these stories.

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