Last week was certainly one to remember. It began with markets going bipolar in moment-by-moment reaction to a potentially cascading financial crisis, helped little by our government’s on-again off-again white knight rescue talk. It ended with the first toe-to-toe presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama.
The campaigns are now going over the video of debate number one with fine-tooth combs. They are looking for subtle, and not-so-subtle, moments when points were scored and punches ducked. Absent the black and white of a clear knock out, great attention is being paid to the bobbing and weaving seen in shadows of gray.
But many Americans know that the key moment of the week had already happened days before McCain and Obama shook hands on that Mississippi stage.
For much of the 20th century, the Blackstone Hotel, located at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Balboa Street in Chicago, was known as the “hotel of the presidents.” The 21-story facility, recently renovated by the Marriott people with a price tag of 128 million dollars, has long been listed on local and national registers of historic places.
The Blackstone was where the legendary political phrase “smoke-filled room” entered the American vocabulary. It was a description of where and how Warren Harding’s Republican presidential nomination was decided in 1920. Harry Truman was staying there when he was picked to be the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1944, as was Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was notified that the GOP had nominated him on the first ballot in 1952.
The most dramatic Blackstone presidential moment, however, took place on the morning of Saturday, October 20, 1962. Hours before, after a long day on the campaign trail for local politicos, President John F. Kennedy sipped clam chowder in his suite and decided to return to the White House rather than continue his tour. Having made a speech in Chicago, he was scheduled to go to Milwaukee - then out to the west coast to work on behalf of several Democratic candidates.
The fact that the Soviets were installing offensive missiles in Cuba, which had been kept pretty much below media radar for several days, was about to become a very public national crisis. Things were reaching critical mass.
By breakfast time, Secret Service agents were sweeping the lobby, along with every nook and cranny in the common areas of the historic hotel. At mid-morning, Mr. Kennedy emerged from an elevator, adorned with an overcoat and rarely worn hat, and walked briskly though the lobby toward the main door and his limousine.
Less than 24 hours before, he had entered the hotel through the same door after seeing a protest sign calling for, “Less Profile – More Courage.” There were no such signs this morning though, few even knew that Lancer would be on the move – not even the press. Reporters, many of whom were already on busses ready to go to Milwaukee, were informed that the president had a cold and a slight fever and was heading back to Washington on the advice of his doctor.
The collective response of the press was, “yeah right.”
This mysterious malady was apparently quite contagious, even leaping several time zones, because Vice President Lyndon Johnson was similarly afflicted and also leaving the campaign trail. He flew that day from Honolulu back to the nation’s capital.
JFK and LBJ knew a thing or two about politics and governing. They understood with Solomon-like wisdom that, “there is a time to campaign, and a time to break off campaigning.”
It’s a leadership thing.
John McCain was right to do what he did recently when he announced the temporary suspension of his presidential campaign and returned to Washington. Barack Obama was caught flat-footed and, one suspects, a little upset that he didn’t think of it first. Both men are sitting U.S. Senators. In a campaign famous for chronic discussions about experience and preparation for the job they seek, one way to size these men up is to watch how they actually do the jobs they already have.
Mr. Obama has suggested that John McCain’s decision indicates an inability to multi-task. But that dog won’t hunt. The issue is not whether or not a person can do two or more things at once – as both men clearly can. The real question is – are there circumstances that loom so large, that become so compelling, that transcend the times in such a way as to call for unusual, even unprecedented, attention and action?
Of course, the answer is yes.
This is clearly a time for such action and leadership. What is more presidential – making a stump speech, participating in a debate, or actually taking some time away from center stage to do a job one has already been elected to do?
John McCain instinctively gets that. Barack Obama does not.
If President Bush were at his ranch in Crawford, or on some foreign farewell tour, or doing some other ceremonial president-stuff, both candidates would be rightly calling for his return to Washington to deal with the crisis at hand.
On September 11, 2001, the local election campaign in New York City stopped. It became instantly insignificant in light of the horrific developments of that day. Politics went away – leadership kicked in. We need that kind of gut-level “work the problem” approach from both of the men running for president this year.
Frankly, we can learn more about a potential president by the response to real problems, than we can by the response to a question in a debate. McCain and Obama are already elected officials. One way to demonstrate that you can do a bigger job is to be faithful and diligent in your current assignment.
Barack Obama needs to move beyond trying to one-up John McCain, who is clearly skilled at keeping an opponent off-balance by not telegraphing his punches. He may need to ask himself what his hero, JFK, would do. Kennedy understood that sometimes a campaign has to take a back seat to a crisis.
It might also be good for Mr. Obama to figure out that a wise leader not only comes up with good ideas, but is also capable of recognizing value in those developed by others - even political opponents.
There are basically two kinds of people who seek leadership positions, whether in organizations, corporations, or on the political stage. There are those who want to be something. For them, it is about personality, charisma, celebrity, and ceremony.
Then there are those leaders, admittedly a minority, who actually want to do something.
Do something leaders tend to work outside of familiar boxes. They can color outside the lines to make important and constructive things happen.
The McCain campaign has now, of course, resumed - debate and all - and we are moving back to business-as-usual. It is important to note, though, that there was a brief and shining moment recently when we saw the difference between a leader and a wannabe.