December 3, 2010
Successful Politicians Like MeetingsBy Mark Butterworth
Almost everyone I know or meet, when asked, does not hesitate to assert that he or she hates meetings. There are a vast number of jokes about the wearisome and useless nature of meetings in business, in faculty boards and education, in government, and in nonprofit organizations.
And that's why so few citizens wish to run for political office -- because they rightly recognize that the bulk of a politician's life is spent in meetings over the minutiae of how many parts per billion of ozone molecules can safely reside in a glass of water or lungful of air.
But I like meetings. I never knew I did until, in my mid-forties, I was appointed to attend meetings of the liturgy committee of my Catholic church. Before then, I almost never attended meetings of any kind. All the jobs I had called meetings only to inform the workers of a new procedure or rule. If they went on for long, they were intolerably boring. But that's because you had to sit and listen to someone drone on and on trying to drum something into dull heads.
Once I started attending a meeting where I cared about the results, I enjoyed interacting with people I knew and liked, and whom I got to know better simply by the expression of their opinions and ideas. I thought meetings were marvelous -- a deliberate and thoughtful way of working things out for the good of all, even if the consensus went against me or my faction. I found the process and experience pleasant and satisfying because I found the people fascinating and the exchange with them edifying. But then I'm a musician, composer, and writer, so I tend to find the creative process itself pleasing. I don't simply hate everything until I get the result I want.
Ronald Reagan loved meetings. It probably wrecked his first marriage when he became active in the Screen Actors' Guild, since his devotion to dealing with the business of the union consumed him. Reagan liked people, and he enjoyed being with groups of souls as they worked out all the little details of policy -- defining problems, fixing goals, and overcoming the conflicts inherent in getting to "yes."
Barack Obama strikes me as a man who hates meetings. He certainly hated sitting in the Senate listening to tedious debates and attending committee meetings. Barack can think of a million other things he'd rather be doing than hammering out an agreement, forging a compromise, making a deal. Hence the preference for the Chicago style. I won, you have to do what I want by decree, fiat, proclamation. Obama couldn't care less what others think or what evidence people present to make cases or persuade; he cares about only basking in adulation and self-love. Anything other than that bores him.
When Obama presided over a bipartisan meeting on his health care reform proposals, he proved himself testy, short, and peremptory. He reminded John McCain who won the election, and he sneered when Paul Ryan explained exactly and in superb, irrefutable detail how the claim of savings in Obamacare was absurd. It was clear that Obama could hardly refrain from giving the Republicans the middle finger, as he had done before to Hillary Clinton and John McCain during campaign debates.
That's why Obama turned over all his legislative business to Pelosi and Reid and trotted out to give another boring speech whenever he thought one was needed or he was told to.
Barack loves himself. He doesn't like people. He doesn't want to hang around them unless they're watching ESPN together, playing golf, or shooting hoops.
But one of the secrets of political success is that many politicians get tired of meetings. Therefore, the leader who is willing to extend a meeting or to keep meeting on a subject is likely to prevail because his energy, his willingness to keep trying to persuade, often wears down others.
Boredom can't enter into it for a leader; he has to be unflagging but also reasonable, personable, entertaining, and patient in company. He can't be thin-skinned, infuriated, sarcastic, dismissive, and rude.
A while ago, I served on a jury and saw firsthand how people are bored by having to interact with others seriously. The foreman was mildly sarcastic to the last holdout on one count of guilt or innocence, and she got her back up and hung the jury out of spite. I wanted to continue to deliberate and see if I could not persuade the insulted, not very intelligent woman to examine the facts with less emotion, but the rest of the jury had no patience left, even though we'd not been at it more than an hour.
This is how Tom Delay could be convicted on the day before Thanksgiving -- because people would rather get it over with than do the man simple justice.
After my own jury experience, I shuddered at the thought of ever having to appear before my peers, because they don't take the task seriously enough. Not if it means going on any longer than they feel like. They'll sell you down the river or set you free as a bird just so they don't have to come back to a meeting.
But it is in meetings that we work out the problems of a community. Our Founding Fathers had meetings -- lots of them -- to work out the Declaration and the Constitution. The Bible was put together by people having meetings about what should go in, what should stay out, what was good and what was less good. All churches work out their dogmas and doctrines, their faith and morals through meetings.
Sarah Palin has shown that she is someone who likes meetings, likes being with other people, and likes working out problems. Does that make her a great candidate? I don't know. Is she ready for big-league meetings, so to speak? As far as I can see, she seemed to know what she was doing as a mayor and governor just as well as Chris Christie seems to know what he's doing in New Jersey and Mitch Daniels in Indiana.
She's smart enough for the job because we've already seen the position held by the likes of Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, and a few a little less dumb -- like the two Bushes, neither of whom could manage to work out what a principled Republican or conservative actually believes and why.