Brooks and Nocera

Bobo is now an authority on the Pope and what he reads.  In “Pope Francis, the Prince of the Personal” he gurgles that on Francis’ visit he will offer a model on listening and learning, and upholding moral standards while remaining loving and merciful.  In the comments “Anetliner netliner” from the Washington DC area had this to say:  “This piece is a beautiful tribute to Pope Francis’s pastoral leadership. But Brooks– perhaps predictably– ignores Francis’s searing criticism of global capitalism as expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si.  Francis’s campaign for economic justice is a key element of his papacy and should be acknowledged.”  Mr. Nocera takes a look at “Trump and Fiorina’s Snake Oil Sales” and says Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina are each right about the other’s lousy business record.  Here’s Bobo:

One of Pope Francis’ favorite novels is “The Betrothed” by Alessandro Manzoni. It is about two lovers whose longing to marry is thwarted by a cowardly and morally mediocre priest and a grasping nobleman. A good simple friar shelters the suffering couple. Then a plague hits the country, reminding everyone of their mortality and vulnerability, and also bringing about a moral reckoning.

As the doctors serve in hospitals for the body, the good people in the church serve in hospitals for the soul. One cardinal remonstrates the cowardly priest. “You should have loved, my son; loved and prayed. Then you would have seen that the forces of iniquity have power to threaten and to wound, but no power to command.” In the end there are heart-wrenching scenes of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and marriage.

I mention this novel, which Francis has read four times, because we in the press are about to over-politicize his visit to America. We’re comfortable talking about our ideological disputes, so we’ll closely follow and cover whatever hints he drops on abortion, gay marriage, global warming and divorce.

But this visit is also a spiritual and cultural event. Millions of Americans will display their faith in public. Francis will offer doctrinal instruction for Catholics. But the great gift is the man himself — his manner, the way he carries himself. Specifically, Francis offers a model on two great questions: How do you deeply listen and learn? How do you uphold certain moral standards, while still being loving and merciful to those you befriend?

Throughout his life Francis’ core message has been anti-ideological. As Austen Ivereigh notes in his biography “The Great Reformer,” Francis has consistently criticized abstract intellectual systems that speak in crude generalities, instrumentalize the poor and ignore the rich idiosyncratic nature of each soul and situation. He has written that many of our political debates are so abstract, you can’t smell the sweat of real life. They reduce everything to “tired, gray cartoon-book narratives.”

Francis’ great gift, by contrast, is learning through intimacy, not just to study poverty, but to live among the poor and feel it as a personal experience from the inside. “I see the church as a field hospital after battle,” Pope Francis told the interviewer Father Antonio Spadaro. “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. … Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up.”

That closeness teaches you granular details, but also arouses a sense of respect. “I see the sanctity of God’s people, this daily sanctity,” Francis has said. “I see the holiness in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces.”

We practice material and intellectual elitism, looking upward for status and specialized and de-spiritualized knowledge. Pope Francis emphasizes that different kinds of knowledge come from different quarters. As he put it, “This is how it is with Mary: If you want to know who she is, you ask the theologians; if you want to know how to love her, you have to ask the people.”

These days some religious people believe they need to cut themselves off from the corruptions of a decadent modern culture. But Francis argues that you need to throw yourself in the world’s diverse living cultures to see God in his full glory and you need faith to see people in their full depth. He is fond of quoting Dostoyevsky’s line from “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Whoever does not believe in God will not believe in the people of God. … Only the people and their future spiritual power will convert our atheists, who have severed themselves from their own land.”

Francis’ whole approach is personal, intimate and situation-specific. If you are too rigorous and just apply abstract rules, he argues, you are washing your hands of your responsibility to a person. But if you are too lax, and just try to be kind to everybody, you are ignoring the truth of sin and the need to correct it.

Only by being immersed in the specificity of that person and that mysterious soul can you strike the right balance between rigor and compassion. Only by being intimate and loving can you match the authority that comes from church teaching with the democratic wisdom that bubbles from each individual’s common sense.

Pope Francis is an extraordinary learner, listener and self-doubter. The best part of this week will be watching him relate to people, how he listens deeply and learns from them, how he sees them both in their great sinfulness but also with endless mercy and self-emptying love.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Business wonk that I am, my favorite moment in last week’s Republican debate came when Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump got into a spat over which of them had the lousier track record as business leaders.

“The company is a disaster,” scoffed Trump, referring to Hewlett-Packard, the iconic technology company Fiorina ran from 1999 to 2005. Trump continued: “When Carly says the revenues went up that’s because she bought Compaq. It was a terrible deal, and it really led to the destruction of the company.”

Fiorina responded by focusing on how Trump ran his three Atlantic City casinos into the ground. “You ran up mountains of debt, as well as losses,” she said, “using other people’s money, and you were forced to file for bankruptcy not once, not twice [but] four times, a record four times.”

They’re both right. Fiorina’s tenure at HP was indeed a disaster, and Trump’s casino interests did indeed file for bankruptcy multiple times. Now that Trump and Fiorina are number one and number two in a recent poll — oy! — it’s worth taking a closer look at their business records.

Fiorina’s effort to revise her reputation began in October 2006, some 20 months after she was ousted as the chief executive of HP, when she published her autobiography. In it, she claimed that she had taken a company that was adrift and gotten it humming again. She described her firing as the action of a dysfunctional board, which it certainly was. But that was in no small part because the directors played Charlie Brown to her Lucy. Again and again, she would say that progress was right around the corner, and they believed her; again and again, she disappointed.

By every metric that mattered, HP was in far worse shape when she was fired than when she was hired. The company’s stock price dropped more than 50 percent during her tenure, compared to a 7 percent drop in the S.&P. 500. And net earnings dropped to $2.4 billion from $3.1 billion during that same time. The Compaq merger, meanwhile, was a misguided fiasco; today, virtually all remnants of it have disappeared from HP. Fiorina’s me-me-me leadership style demoralized the company and its shareholders. When she walked out the door in February 2005 — with a $21 million severance package — the stock jumped nearly 7 percent.

Trump? He’s a business legend, all right, — in his own mind. To listen to him, you’d think he is the greatest business person of all time. He is not even close. What he mainly is, as his presidential campaign is proving, is our era’s P.T. Barnum.

The key fact about Trump’s early success is that it would never have happened without his father Fred’s money. As Tim O’Brien points out in his highly entertaining 2005 biography, “TrumpNation,” Trump would have flopped in his first foray in the big time — turning the Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt in Midtown Manhattan — if his father had not lent him the money to cover cost overruns.

According to O’Brien, Fred Trump bailed out his son on other occasions, most notably when he bought $3.5 million worth of chips at one of Trump’s casinos — and then didn’t use them to gamble, in violation of state casino regulations — so that his son would have enough to make a loan payment.

As for the casino bankruptcies, Trump likes to characterize them as shrewd business moves, and stresses that he never filed for personal bankruptcy. But those corporate bankruptcies were costly; he wound up having to give up many of his real estate holdings, and was even put on a monthly budget for a time.

And with some $900 million in personal guarantees, he avoided personal bankruptcy by a whisker. Again, according to O’Brien, Trump borrowed millions from his siblings to keep his head above water. Today, a far more cautious Donald Trump runs what amounts to a Potemkin company, with a staff that mainly licenses his “brand.” He owns very few of the buildings with the Trump name on them.

Trump claims, implausibly, to be worth over $8 billion. (Forbes puts his net worth at half that amount.) But even taking him at his word, that sum is less impressive than you’d think. As several writers have pointed out, if, in 1988, he had simply put his money in a stock index fund, it would be worth $13 billion today. In effect, his post-1988 business career has cost him $5 billion.

Even putting aside their policy positions, their narcissism, their poor records as leaders and their lack of scruples in spinning failures as triumphs all suggest that Fiorina and Trump would make terrible presidents. To my mind, there is only one entrepreneur who has both a record of true business accomplishment and government service to merit consideration as a presidential candidate.

I can’t be the only one who wishes Michael Bloomberg would enter the race, can I?

Yes, Joe, I’m sure you can be.

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