Bobo has extruded a thing called “The Leadership Emotions” in which he gurgles that political leaders have come to rely primarily on consultants’ carefully crafted, poll-based political advice, which can obscure the moral impulses necessary for leadership. Every time he uses any phrase that includes the word “moral” I break out in hives… Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Real Port Authority Scandal:” Should we be financing empty office space in a half-filled building or upkeep on our roads and bridges? Mr. Bruni, in “Autism and the Agitator,” says Jenny McCarthy got a crazy amount of traction. She shouldn’t get a whitewash. Here’s Bobo:
Throughout American history, most presidents had small personal staffs. They steered through political waters as amateurs, relying on experience, instinct and conversations with friends.
Then candidates and presidents hired professionals to help them navigate public opinion. By the time Theodore White began his “Making of the President” series in 1960, the strategists, who had once been hidden, came into view. Every successive administration has taken power away from cabinet agencies and centralized more of it with those political professionals who control messaging from within the White House.
This trend is not just in politics. We have become a consultant society. Whether you are running a business or packaging yourself for a job or college admissions, people rely on the expertise of professional advice-givers.
The rise of professional strategists has changed the mental climate of the time, especially in the realm of politics. Technical advisers are hired to be shrewd. Under their influence the distinction between campaigning and governing has faded away. Most important, certain faculties that were central to amateur decision making — experience, intuition, affection, moral sentiments, imagination and genuineness — have been shorn down for those traits that we associate with professional tactics and strategy — public opinion analysis, message control, media management and self-conscious positioning.
A nice illustration of this shift came in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine in the form of Jo Becker’s book adaptation, “How the President Got to ‘I Do’ on Same-Sex Marriage.” It is the inside story of how the president’s advisers shifted the White House position on gay marriage, from one the president didn’t really believe in — opposition to same-sex unions — to one he did.
Not long ago, readers would have been shocked to see how openly everyone now talks about maneuvering a 180-degree turn on a major civil rights issue. It would have been embarrassing to acknowledge that you were running your moral convictions through the political process, arranging stagecraft. People might have maneuvered on moral matters, but they weren’t so unabashed about it.
Today we’re all in on the game. The question is whether it is played well.
There were two sorts of strategists described in Becker’s piece. One group, including the former Republican Party leader Ken Mehlman, has ardent supporters of same-sex marriage who tried to craft the right messaging. Mehlman told Obama to talk about his daughters when he announced his new position.
The other strategists were in charge of the president’s political prospects. Under their influence, the substance of the issue was submerged under the calculus of coalition management: who would be pleased and displeased by a shift. As usual, these strategists were overly timid, afraid of public backlash from this or that demographic.
Becker describes a process in which there were strategy sessions but no conclusion. The strategists were good at trivial things, like picking a TV interviewer for the scripted announcement, but they were not good at propelling a decision. “This was so past the sell-by date,” one senior administration official told Becker, “yet there was still no real plan in place. It just shows you how scared everyone was of this issue.”
The person who finally got the administration to move just went with his heart. Vice President Joe Biden met the children of a gay couple and blurted out that same-sex marriage is only fair. He went on “Meet the Press” and said the same thing.
Biden violated every strategist rule. He got ahead of the White House message. He was unscripted. He went with his moral sense. But his comments shifted the policy. The president was compelled to catch up.
Edmund Burke once wrote, “The true lawgiver ought to have a heart full of sensibility. He ought to love and respect his kind, and to fear himself.” Burke was emphasizing that leadership is a passionate activity. It begins with a warm gratitude toward that which you have inherited and a fervent wish to steward it well. It is propelled by an ardent moral imagination, a vision of a good society that can’t be realized in one lifetime. It is informed by seasoned affections, a love of the way certain people concretely are and a desire to give all a chance to live at their highest level.
This kind of leader is warm-blooded and leads with full humanity. In every White House, and in many private offices, there seems to be a tug of war between those who want to express this messy amateur humanism and those calculators who emphasize message discipline, preventing leaks and maximum control. In most of the offices, there’s a fear of natural messiness, a fear of uncertainty, a distrust of that which is not scientific. The calculators are given too much control.
The leadership emotions, which should propel things, get amputated. The shrewd tacticians end up timidly and defensively running the expedition.
Ah… It’s been a while since he dragged up the specter of Edmund Burke… Here’s Mr. Nocera:
This is a column about the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but you won’t read a word in here about the lane-closing scandal in Fort Lee, N.J. This is about another scandal, one that has been going for on so long that people don’t even think of it as scandalous. Indeed, it involves no illegality whatsoever. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a scandal.
The Port Authority is supposed to manage — and improve — important parts of the transportation infrastructure of New York and New Jersey: airports like John F. Kennedy Airport, bridges like the George Washington Bridge, and terminals like the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
And, in fact, all of these need improving, especially the bus terminal, which is 64 years old and thoroughly outmoded. The steep $13 toll that drivers pay to cross the George Washington Bridge, for instance, is supposed to help pay for infrastructure improvements.
For decades, however, at least some of that money has been diverted to real estate — specifically, the World Trade Center, which the Port Authority originally built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then subsidized for the next several decades, as the Twin Towers languished under its stewardship. It finally exited the business in the summer of 2001, by signing a 99-year lease with Larry Silverstein, the developer.
Which, of course, was only weeks before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Since then, the Port Authority has dived back into real estate, pouring at least $7.7 billion rebuilding the area around Ground Zero. Some of that money went for the 9/11 memorial and museum. But some $4 billion went to an over-the-top PATH station. And another $3.3 billion has gone to build One World Trade Center — which used to be known as Freedom Tower, and, at a symbolic 1,776 feet high, is now the tallest building in the country.
Whether or not building commercial skyscrapers was the right way to rebuild Ground Zero, what can be said for sure is that the Port Authority has shown, yet again, that it doesn’t belong in the real estate business. One World Trade Center is the most expensive high-rise building ever built in America, and it is costing the Port Authority a fortune. Only 55 percent of its 2.6 million square feet has been leased, and most of that is at a significant loss. Meanwhile, 4 World Trade Center, which was developed by Silverstein, has only 60 percent of its space leased. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out recently, between the two buildings, there is more than 2.5 million square feet of unleased space at Ground Zero.
So why in the world would the Port Authority be willing to back another $1.2 billion in loans to help Silverstein build 3 World Trade Center? Yet on Wednesday, that is exactly what the Port Authority board is supposed to vote on.
Silverstein needs the loan guarantee for a simple reason: The market is saying that, with all that empty office space, this is not the time to be building another skyscraper downtown. He has, so far, found one tenant, but banks are insisting that a higher percentage of the building be preleased before the construction of the building will get financing. So Silverstein has turned to the Port Authority instead to be his funder of last resort.
And not all that long ago, it would have been a safe bet that the Port Authority would have gone along. Indeed, the vice chairman of the board, Scott Rechler — a realtor himself — has said that “it’s part of our mission to finish it.”
But this time, somebody on the board has finally stood up and said, “Enough.” That person is Kenneth Lipper, an investment banker and a former deputy mayor of New York, who was appointed to the Port Authority board last year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.
“There is simply no reason for the Port Authority to step in,” he told me on Monday. “The private sector is appropriately saying, ‘Not now.’ ” But he also had another objection, one that heralds back to the original purpose of the Port Authority. “Our role is to develop the transportation infrastructure of this region. We have more infrastructure needs than we can finance through our revenue base. As a result, we are triaging necessary transportation improvements to finance what will be an empty building.”
Always in the past, the commissioners have voted unanimously to approve ventures like the Silverstein deal; it was the way things worked at the Port Authority. That’s one reason these expenditures have seemed less outrageous than they really are: there was no opposition. This time, however, there is going to be an actual debate. And if, after that, Silverstein gets his loan guarantees, well, there will finally be no doubt that a scandal has taken place.
And now here’s Mr. Bruni:
What do you call someone who sows misinformation, stokes fear, abets behavior that endangers people’s health, extracts enormous visibility from doing so and then says the equivalent of “Who? Me?”
I’m not aware of any common noun for a bad actor of this sort. But there’s a proper noun: Jenny McCarthy.
For much of the past decade, McCarthy has been the panicked face and intemperate voice of a movement that posits a link between autism and childhood vaccinations and that badmouths vaccines in general, saying that they have toxins in them and that children get too many of them at once.
Because she posed nude for Playboy, dated Jim Carrey and is blond and bellicose, she has received platforms for this message that her fellow nonsense peddlers might not have. She has spread the twisted word more efficiently than the rest.
And then, earlier this month, she said the craziest thing of all, in a column for The Chicago Sun-Times.
“I am not ‘anti-vaccine,’ ” she wrote, going on to add, “For years, I have repeatedly stated that I am, in fact, ‘pro-vaccine’ and for years I have been wrongly branded.”
You can call this revisionism. Or you can call it “a complete and utter lie,” as the writer Michael Specter said to me. Specter’s 2009 book, “Denialism,” looks at irrational retorts to proven science like McCarthy’s long and undeniable campaign against vaccines.
McCarthy waded into the subject after her son, Evan, was given a diagnosis of autism in 2005. She was initially motivated, it seems, by heartache and genuine concern.
She proceeded to hysteria and wild hypothesis. She got traction, and pressed on and on.
In 2007, she was invited on “Oprah” and said that when she took Evan to the doctor for the combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, she had “a very bad feeling” about what she recklessly termed “the autism shot.” She added that after the vaccination, “Boom! Soul, gone from his eyes.”
In an online Q. and A. after the show, she wrote: “If I had another child, I would not vaccinate.”
She also appeared on CNN in 2007 and said that when concerned pregnant women asked her what to do, “I am surely not going to tell anyone to vaccinate.”
Two years later, in Time magazine, she said, “If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the measles.” I’ve deleted the expletive she used before the second “measles.”
And on The Huffington Post a year after that, she responded to experts who insisted that vaccines didn’t cause autism and were crucial to public health with this declaration: “That’s a lie, and we’re sick of it.”
I don’t know how she can claim a pro-vaccine record. But I know why she’d want to.
Over the last few years, measles outbreaks linked to parents’ refusals to vaccinate children have been laid at McCarthy’s feet. The British study that opponents like her long cited has been revealed as fraudulent. And she and her tribe have gone from seeming like pitifully misguided dissidents to indefatigably senseless quacks, a changed climate and mood suggested by what happened last month when she asked her Twitter followers to name “the most important personality trait” in a mate. She got a bevy of blistering responses along the lines of “someone who vaccinates” and “critical thinking skills.”
Seth Mnookin, the author of the 2011 book “The Panic Virus,” which explores and explodes the myth that vaccines cause autism, noted that McCarthy had a relatively new gig on ABC’s “The View” that could be jeopardized by continued fearmongering. What once raised her profile, he said, could now cut her down.
As she does her convenient pivot, the rest of us should look at questions raised by her misadventures.
When did it become O.K. to present gut feelings like hers as something in legitimate competition with real science? That’s what interviewers who gave her airtime did, also letting her tell the tale of supposedly curing Evan’s autism with a combination of her “Mommy instinct” and a gluten-free diet, and I’d love to know how they justify it.
Are the eyeballs drawn by someone like McCarthy more compelling than public health and truth? Her exposure proves how readily television bookers and much of the news media will let famous people or pretty people or (best of all!) people who are both famous and pretty hold forth on subjects to which they bring no actual expertise. Whether the topic is autism or presidential politics, celebrity trumps authority and obviates erudition.
There’s also this: How much time did physicians and public officials waste trying to neutralize the junk in which McCarthy trafficked? As Fred Volkmar, a professor at Yale University’s medical school, said to me, “It diverts people from what’s really important, which is to focus on the science of really helping kids with autism.”