Friday, April 04, 2008



No, not the Robbie Williams album and song, but real life as played out by a growing number of stunningly ambitious and self centered figures ranging from the capital's school superintendent to the head of Bear Stearns and Barack Obama.

I first noticed it when I realized I had voted for the wrong candidate for DC mayor: Adrian Fenty. Son of longtime shopkeepers, child of the city, popular in all its parts although few could really tell you why, he seemed like the best of the lot. I put aside the qualms I had after he paid a visit to our neighborhood and stood talking to me one foot away as if there was a 37" HD screen between us. And the I'm the boss manner he handed an assistant his ringing cell phone as he spoke.

In office, Fenty began to treat everyone the way he treated that assistant. As I described it later:

Fenty sometimes reminds us of a fresh MBA trying to prove his leadership by following all the bullet points in some management book he picked up at an airport news stand. He has put an excessive emphasis on proving his decisiveness and virtually none on demonstrating judgment, working well with a variety of constituencies and understanding that certainty has no particular connection with competence.

It has only been a few months and he has already thrown the school system for a loop, ended all democratic participation in it, launched a direct assault on the city's home rule charter, made a number of lousy appointments and agreed to a sweetheart deal for a suite at the Verizon Center that would be illegal if anyone in power in DC gave a damn.

Add to Fenty's misdirected ego is the fact that he was far more beholden to downtown business interests and their guides, the Washington Post and the Federal City Council, then he ever let on during the campaign. There is a reasonable issue of integrity here. Fenty has not only failed us; he also fooled us.

At the time I thought it was just a character flaw. But now it looks more like a pattern. In February, his school superintendent, Michelle Rhee - who has proved just as carelessly arrogant - was on PBS with this exchange:

JOHN MERROW: Have you done anything that you regret?

MICHELLE RHEE: You know, I'm a very unusual person in that, in my entire life, I don't have any regrets.

And then this from Dana Milbank's coverage of the Senate hearing at which Bear Stearns CEO Alan Schwartz testified:

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) asked the corporate-welfare recipient whether he shares any blame for his indigent circumstances. "Do you believe that your management team has any responsibility for the company's collapse?"

Schwartz could think of no missteps -- not even his decision to remain at a conference at the Breakers in Palm Beach while his firm was imploding. "I just simply have not been able to come up with anything, even with the benefit of hindsight," said the blameless chief executive, escorted into the hearing room by superlawyer Robert Bennett.

Then we have the man who was, until four years ago, an undistinguished state senator from Illinois being presented to us - with no little help from his spin machine - as the new John F Kennedy, if not Jesus himself. There is something about Obama's self absorbed self confidence, total lack of humility or even great consciousness of those around him - that reminds me of Fenty. And if he came to our neighborhood, I suspect that 37" HD screen would come between us, too.

What has he done? Not much. What are the policies he proposes that evoke such a passionate response? Still to be revealed. The other night I watched his Chris Matthews interview with the screaming students backed by cheerleaders at West Chester University and then, not long after, caught the latest American Idol. The grossly disproportionate enthusiasm of the audience was almost identical, but in the end I felt closer to Brooke White, David Archuleta, Kristy Lee Cook and Michael Johns - even Chris Matthews - than I did to Obama. I can't get over that sense that there's something not quite real going on in our relationship. After all, if David Archuelta wins, I don't have to listen to him. If Obama wins, I'm in for four years of something I don't know much about at all.

If you watch Obama, you can easily slip into the illusion that he has actually done something, that he has some great ideas, and that he can solve problems better than his opponents when, in fact, you're going to wake up some night at 3 a.m. and realize that he never really explained how to get out of the Iraq war, how he was going to solve the current fiscal crisis and so forth.

A while back I drew a parallel between Obama and Tony Robbins. It may not have been so far off. Obama's pal and mentor, Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts, will be taking time off from his public responsibilities to hustle a self improvement book. Here's how Matt Viser of the Boston Globe describes the project:

Governor Deval Patrick isn't merely penning his memoirs. The book proposal he submitted to publishers reads like the roadmap for a self-help manual, one in which he will celebrate optimism, rail against cynicism, and seek to inspire a nation with his own life story.

The 65-page pitch letter that led to his $1.35 million advance last week from a Random House imprint reveals, in its overflowing optimism and aggressive marketing plan, just how high the freshman governor is aiming when the book is published in 2010.

It details a strategy to sell at least 150,000 copies through a "vigorous media campaign," a nationwide book-signing tour, multiple speaking engagements, and efforts to persuade big corporations to buy the book by the carton, activities that promise to pull Patrick away from Massachusetts and the State House during the last year of his term. . .

The document describes an unusual business arrangement in which A Better Chance, the charity that lifted Patrick out of the South Side of Chicago and sent him to Milton Academy, will play an integral role in promoting and marketing the book through a ready-made network of national leaders, corporate supporters, and pre-scheduled events.

Patrick writes that major corporations are likely to buy tens of thousands of books.

"A Better Chance has numerous top-drawer corporate sponsors - GE, Sony, Coca-Cola, Toyota, Verizon, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, American Express (and many others) - who are capable of making significant bulk purchases of the book and distributing these copies among employees, business contacts, community leaders, students and others," the governor wrote.

In his proposal, Patrick dangles the promise of celebrity endorsers, saying he has the connections to persuade high-profile figures to put promotional blurbs on the book, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, former Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan, Harvard Medical School professor Alvin Poussaint, and Senator Barack Obama, who by then could be president.

Patrick portrays himself as an inspirational figure who is already getting Massachusetts residents to see their world in a new way and is ready to carry his message to a broader audience. While he boasts that he is able to draw big crowds and energize young people, he says that America is tired of a culture of self-centeredness.

"No matter who or what may try to stop us, we can reshape this world together," he writes. "My life is a living testament to that truth."

Which is okay until you read the actual news about what's been happening in Massachusetts, such as Dan Kennedy's description in the Guardian:

Patrick, a former Clinton administration official and corporate lawyer, has been stumbling since his inauguration. Some of it has been over silliness, such as Patrick's decision to replace his state car with a Cadillac SUV and to order $10,000 drapes for his statehouse office. Some of it involved his inability to bend a recalcitrant legislature to his will on such good-government issues as closing corporate tax loopholes.

A lot of it, though, was about his misguided proposal to build three gambling casinos in Massachusetts. The House speaker, Sal DiMasi, had been signaling for months that he wouldn't go along with the "casino culture" and its concomitant increases in crime, traffic and various social ills. Late last month, DiMasi finally brought down the hammer, as the House defeated Patrick's casino bill by an overwhelming 108 to 46.

And here's where it went from bad to worse for Patrick. The governor failed to stick around for the vote, choosing to travel to New York on unspecified "personal business" rather than stand with those who'd stood by him. That, in turn, led to a story in the New York Times on March 27 - on page one, above the fold! - accompanied by the understated headline "Early dazzle, then tough path for a governor.". . .

In DC, Michelle Rhee, one of the new group of rock star school superintendents who typically come in at extraordinarily large salaries and stay an extraordinarily short time, isn't off to a good start, either - thanks in part to a tyrannical approach to matters general, telling one group of students they couldn't leave their high school during lunch, as well as proposing to close 23 schools and turning an uncertain number of them over for uncertain purposes, presumably some of which will make someone an awful lot of unearned money.

These examples only suggest a pattern, admittedly without proving it. My hunch is here are products of a generation that has sadly been given Clinton, Bush and Trump as role models and so - being among the most ambitious of their ilk - they sally forth with such guides and without the restraints and wisdom that gave power some balance before the second robber era - things like parents who had gone through the depression, moral pointers from both religion and a political activism that no longer exits, connections made through community rather than through Ipod and text messaging.

In each case, there is capacity for good and for evil. There is talent, yet there is an absence of a context for it. There is the ability to lead but only if those around them follow. And they come from a culture and live in a time when a failing Massachusetts governor can get $1.5 million to write a book to inspire others to be just like him. A time when logic doesn't play much of a role, but getting people to forget about logic certainly does.

In the end, if we had more leaders capable of regrets over the past, we might have less cause to have fears over the future.