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Steven I. Platt: Thanks for leaders past, hope for leaders future

As this column was being written, Thanksgiving Day was imminent, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are approaching and 2013 is coming to an end. The year 2014 appears over the horizon, but our vision of what it will look like is clouded by the events of 2013 as well as by societal and cultural trends that began before 2013 but that became more noticeable after being reinforced this year — despite our hopes that they would disappear after the 2012 election.

I refer to the continual political gridlock in Washington, which many more optimistic and renowned pundits had predicted would at least dissipate as a result of the “will of the people,” expressed one way or the other in the last presidential and congressional elections. That did not happen. Instead, the level of public approval, confidence and trust in both the institutions of government and the individuals whom we elect to manage those institutions deteriorated even further.

Why? Well, the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, both the website and the implementation of the policy itself, reinforced if not intensified the general cynicism about the ability of government to function efficiently — as well as about the honesty and integrity of our leaders who promised to “change the way Washington works,” “end gridlock” and provide “affordable health care” all at once. So did the mea culpas in which the president acknowledged “not getting it right” and “unintentionally” misleading those citizens who were promised that “if you like your health insurance and your doctor, you can keep them.”

That coupled with the attempt by Tea Party Republicans to undermine the operations of the executive branch of government by shutting it down for about two weeks and then keeping key positions in the executive branch from being staffed by putting arbitrary “holds” on the confirmation of appointments to these positions by the U.S. Senate. This cynical, ill-advised and arguably unpatriotic partisan warfare extended even to the judicial branch of government with the refusal to confirm indisputably qualified judicial nominees, preserving the ideologically driven partisan and philosophical composition of certain courts, particularly the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

‘Nuclear option’

This hyperpartisan method of operation by the Republicans was reluctantly and belatedly addressed last week by a change in the rules of the Senate labeled by opponents and even some supporters as the “nuclear option.” In a nutshell, for certain executive appointments and judicial nominations (not including the Supreme Court), this reduces the number of votes needed to invoke cloture from 60 to 51, which halts a filibuster on these nominations. Even the conservative “Distinguished Panel” on “Fox News Sunday” conceded that despite the offense they took over this and their predictions that the Senate as an institution has now suffered a “mortal blow,” most of us mere mortals will not be discussing the rule change over our Thanksgiving turkey. In fact, its effect will probably go unnoticed — except perhaps to improve the efficiency of government if you believe that government functions better if it is properly staffed.

All of this is now coupled with the recently agreed upon “interim agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program, whose backdrop is the current turmoil in the Middle East. At a time when the people we elected to lead our country and manage the branches and institutions of government should be making every effort to “speak with one voice,” at least in foreign policy, the early reaction appears to be more of the same talking points.

Wisdom in statesmen

Ignatieff clarifies what “good judgment” in a politician looks like by referencing the work of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Berlin describes “what is called wisdom in statesmen” by writing with reference to figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Berlin explains that “what is called wisdom in statesmen is understanding rather than knowledge — some kind of acquaintance with relevant facts of such a kind that enable those who have to tell what fits with what, what can be done in given circumstances and what cannot, what means will work in what situations and how for without necessarily being able to explain how they know this or even what they know.” In plain English, this means wise politicians don’t confuse the world as it is with the world as they wish it to be.

This means that the criticism of President Barack Obama for not personally managing the rollout of the Obamacare website as well as appearing not to know what was going on at the National Security Agency as it was collecting massive personal data is at best unfair and uniformed and at worse cynical and sleazy. On the other hand, the criticism of him and his senior staff for not listening with an open mind to those whose concerns about and opposition to the Affordable Care Act is valid.

Vital judgments

As Ignatieff points out, in practical politics and running a government “there is no science of decision-making.” The vital judgments a politician makes every day are about people —- whom to trust, whom to believe and whom to avoid. Having good judgment in these matters and having a solid perception of reality requires trusting some very unscientific instincts and intuitions about people. That means a president or any executive should talk to different people about different things. He or she should also talk to more than one set of advisers about some things. Furthermore, the structure of how the president receives his or her advice should be designed in a way that ensures that even if he or she is naturally conflict-averse, as most successful politicians are, all ideas, including those with which the leader and his staff disagree, are considered fully and completely in a timely fashion and in the framework and atmosphere where the leader is not unduly pressured in a particular direction because of who is in the room at the moment.

Ironically, on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, many former colleagues and friends of Kennedy remembered that he instinctively knew when to disregard the advice of “experts,” including the generals who advised him to launch a “limited nuclear attack” in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our fond memories of JFK’s handling of crises are in no small part due to that limited but impressive historical record.

This week, let’s give thanks for the fact that we have people who are thinking about the needs of the people and who are willing to study history to improve the voters’ personnel management choices. Best wishes for a merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah and happy Kwanzaa.

Steven I. Platt, a retired associate judge on the Prince George’s County Circuit Court, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. He can be reached at [email protected]