On the Paucity of Genuine Grownups in Public Service

I have a friend who is notably circumspect. He is a master of leaving things unsaid. To those who know him well, what he doesn’t say is sometimes as thought-provoking as what he does.

This friend is a man of many accomplishments – personal, professional and philanthropic – but you have to know him a long time before he might refer to any of them. And then he’ll only do so obliquely, with reference to something, presumably more interesting, that’s already under discussion. You have to wait for his stories to emerge, never turning them into the focus of the conversation. He would consider zeroing in on what he has done to be boasting.

He also neither pries into nor gossips about personal matters. In short, he’s a man of decidedly old-fashioned manners.

***

When I was a boy, the northeastern WASP old guard that had led this country for generations was famous for its frugality and understatement. They surely had their privileges, and beautiful things that they enjoyed in the privacy of their homes, but they wore somber clothes at work and at leisure they could be found in tired khakis and driving ten year-old Volvos. It simply wasn’t done to flaunt your wealth, your accomplishments – if any – or your charitable acts.

My family knew many such people; indeed, my parents shared the same values though not the same backgrounds. We learned from the old guard’s manners – or at least tried to. I was never quite self-assured enough to act as modestly as they did.

***

What my friend’s comportment and the old WASP ethic have in common is a horror of braggadocio and a high level of sensitivity to the feelings of others. For the most part, these virtues now seem like relics of a time gone by.

Oscar Wilde anticipated one aspect of this cultural shift when he declared that “Nothing succeeds like excess”. Taking their cues from Wilde, our new elites – including some descendants of the old WASPs – strive to outdo one another in conspicuous consumption: to such people, it’s not just that they have access to a private jet to get them from here to there in maximal comfort, but which jet and whether it’s theirs or fractional that matters. Status is all.

Forget about personal modesty, even honesty doesn’t matter to those for whom the big score is their highest value: “Fake ittil you make it” is widely reported to be an acceptable – and even laudable – modus operandi these days. It might as well have been have been the personal motto of Elizabeth Holmes, who was briefly a billionaire before her corporate baby – Theranos – was shown to be an outright fraud. (She might’ve even “made it” by the end-justifies-the-means logic so widely used today if she had used some of the $900 million she raised from high-profile suckers to actually create a blood-testing product that, y’know, worked; presumably she intended to at some point – she just never got around to it).

There have always been hucksters, of course, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that there are more of them today than there once were, or that they are attaining greater prominence given the crass, exhibitionist materialism that has seeped into so many people’s values.

Our elites show little personal wisdom. Bernie Madoff’s victims, like those of Elizabeth Holmes, were mostly from the top rungs of society. Same with the veritable parade of people who tried to bribe their children’s ways into prestigious colleges.

***

Our politics are a wasteland. For a long time now I have wondered: where are the grownups? Where are those who, while keeping their own moral compasses, will work to compromise with those who see things differently? Where are those who will refrain from characterizing those with whom they disagree as necessarily stupid, evil or both? Where are those who will consider the longer term implications of the positions they advocate as being more important than how their immediate electoral prospects will be affected by their advocacy?

Our leaders, on both left and right, are evidence of our culture’s decline. We neither encourage nor reward the considered – or considerate – voice. Only the hyper-partisan need run for office. Even nominees for appointive positions must now accept the likelihood of character assassination at the hands of the opposing side; all differences over policy are personalized to the nth degree. No quarter is given or taken between those for whom winning, narrowly defined, is the only goal.

This new approach to politics is the public policy analog to conspicuous consumption: I win/you lose.

***

There once was a time, I believe, when a man like my friend might have been prevailed upon to serve in appointed – or even elective – office. He had an enormously successful career in an important industry. He has met others’ needs for decades through active and generous philanthropy. He is deeply knowledgeable about, and has strong opinions on, issues of great importance to the public. His reputation is unblemished. He treats all with genuine respect.

And he would be crazy to get involved in the political sphere today.

So I guess I do know where the grownups have gone: we have chased them away.

M.H. Johnston

 

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