Simple outrage would be the easy (and potentially right) response to the crazy situation in which Rep. Anthony Weiner finds himself embroiled. But, it’s more pain and sadness I feel today. While Weiner may yet have to resign his congressional seat, I wonder what the real cost is to the rest of us, what relationship we want with our leaders, and what we will do. I’m in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois today to conduct the second focus group of a series to be held across the nation with a cross-section of Americans on the state of politics and public life. This year marks the 20th anniversary of our landmark study, Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street, which we’re updating, again in conjunction with the Kettering Foundation. In Detroit last week, where I held the first conversation, people could not name a single “leader” they trust.
Weiner’s actions may only deepen the negative, damning narrative Americans have about their leaders. Again and again I hear people say that political leaders are crooks, self-aggrandizing, concerned only with their own personal and partisan interests.
Meantime, our political leaders hold themselves up to be the final arbiters of truth and morality, all-knowing, even unblemished heroes. They seek our adoration and absolute approval.
To me, both approaches are sorely wanting. For in this construct there is little room for a real or authentic relationship. Give-and-take is replaced by bluster and condemnation. Finger-pointing and blame becomes the norm. Understanding is victim to shallowness. The quick fix is the coin of the realm.
In our hopes to hope again, the result is that we jump from one political leader to another, in search for Mr. or Ms. Right, while political leaders become cartoon-like figures, contorting themselves to fit different political niches. The upshot is that we lose sight of reality, people’s real needs and aspirations, and what it takes to create progress together. We forfeit the possibility to get good things done. And in this ugly process too often we give up on decent, honorable leaders.
As I watched Weiner’s press conference yesterday while in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I couldn’t help but think about how fraught with frailties our lives are and how things so quickly can fall apart. In recent months, we’ve witnessed such human frailties as the result of natural disasters in Japan, Alabama, and Joplin, MO, among others.
And yet, such frailties are the result more times than not of our own making, as is the case with Weiner. He was forced in public to reveal what may have been his deepest, darkest private secret. Who knows the personal demons that caused Weiner to go down this path – he will need to figure that out.
But this latest episode causes me to wish that we would not place our leaders on pedestals, nor ask them to be super-human. In return, leaders would act with greater humility, and understand they are neither omnipotent nor omnipresent. They are human, frailties and all.
I’m not suggesting that you or I simply forgive Weiner’s frailties; he will have to work out his personal and public future, and each of us will come to our own conclusion about his actions. But, here’s the kicker: so long as we remain on the current path, we are destined to encounter even more anger and frustration – and sadness.
Simply throwing up our hands in disgust about Weiner will not enable our communities and the country to move ahead; nor will looking for the perfect leader. There are good people all around us; let’s find them and lend them our support.