Learning from old-school leaders to redefine leadership of the future
Mid-30s Helen Andrews is a senior editor at The American Conservative and the author of Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster.
What was it like getting a bachelor’s degree in religious studies at Yale? The joke on campus was that the Women’s Studies department was only the second-most godless at Yale. The Religious Studies department studied the religious as if they were some remote tribe. But by the time I figured that out, I was too many credits in to change majors.
Were you a member of the Party of the Right, the organization where guys a half-century ago, to show they were conservative, wore three-piece suits, drank port, and smoked cigars? I was. Still three-piece suits, sipping port, smoking cigars. Some things never change. But what shocked me arriving on campus was that the Yale Political Union had not one conservative party, but three. I respect members of the other two, but they were more about croquet and seersucker and the aesthetics of conservatism, whereas the POR—I think even our enemies will concede—are serious people interested in serious, intense arguments. Sometimes too intense, but the substance drew me in.
Why are you a journalist rather than a political or public policy person? By accident. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated in 2008. But in my senior year, for lack of any other venues to publish my writing, I started a blog about things I was reading and things in the news. Off of that a few magazine editors called. That led to regular writing assignments, internships, then a proper job.
You write about six leaders from the baby boom generation. One is Al Sharpton. You were more impressed with him than I expected you to be, and you describe him as transactional rather than transformational: What’s the distinction? Sharpton speaks of two kinds of leaders in the world. Transformational ones like Martin Luther King Jr. change the way we look at problems. Transactional leaders don’t change anybody’s mind. They make compromises and broker deals. Baby boomers have believed that transformational leadership is the only good kind. I can see why: They are idealistic, wanting grand sweeping changes to make the world a better place. But they have unfairly denigrated just how hard it is, and the value of being a nose-to-the-ground grassroots leader who can take two sides that don’t have anything in common and find a way to broker a deal between them. Sometimes muddling through is the best that you can hope for.
Sharpton sees himself as a transformational leader. Yes, but the reason I have grudging respect for him has nothing to do with his soaring flights of rhetoric. They undermine his claims to be a serious leader. I have grudging respect for Sharpton as transactional. Sometimes he brokers deals to line his own pockets, but you can’t blame a man for that. In the chapter about Sharpton I showed how transactional people like Mayor Daley of Chicago helped to make the world a better place.
You write that Richard J. Daley and other machine politicians weren’t projecting their own fantasies, but actually knew what their constituents thought. You offer a fascinating anecdote about the Kennedy brothers back in 1963: They were ready to do a transaction, but the people they were talking with wanted transformation, and they thought, What use is that? That was a meeting in New York City between John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy on one hand, and James Baldwin plus a lot of activists and writers on the other hand. Jack told Bobby he wanted to meet with some black leaders to figure out how he could appeal to the black vote. They were not just Irish but Boston Irish, with a hereditary connection to the old world of machine politics, where the way that you keep the peace is by giving various constituencies a little payoff, buying their votes almost nakedly. I talk about that in a morally neutral way: They were trying to put together a ruling coalition, and doing good things that help voters is the way you do that.
What happened? Baldwin and his friends verbally abused the Kennedys. One of them told John Kennedy, the war hero, that patriotism was a racket. That was one of the less offensive things said to the Kennedy brothers at that meeting. Bobby Kennedy walked away saying, “I don’t understand these people. I’m not even mad at them. I just don’t know what their problem is. They have the president and the attorney general in the room asking them what favor they could do for them, and they couldn’t come up with anything. How do you even work with people like that?” That’s what happens when you don’t believe in transactional leadership. You don’t have any sense of how little incremental steps can eventually lead to greater change.
In your chapter on Camille Paglia, you write that the advent of streaming video would not have been such a rout for decency if the legal and cultural barriers against pornography had not been obliterated in a pretty short time. Could you unpack that? It’s almost impossible for anyone over the age of 35 to understand how devastating a plague pornography has become. I watched a debate among various conservative talking heads on the future of conservatism. The debaters, journalists in their 40s and 50s, were talking about foreign policy, domestic politics, whatever. But they were in front of an audience of 20-year-olds who wanted to hear about opioid addiction and pornography addiction. Young people today understand that pornography is ubiquitous and more depraved than it has ever been before.
Some people, even conservatives, say pornography is bad but uncontrollable because of the First Amendment and the internet. Until the 1960s the idea that pornography was protected by the First Amendment would have been laughable. The spirit of license and cultural revolution—the boomers’ ’60s heyday—decimated the legal protection against obscenity that had been taken for granted up until then. I write in the Paglia chapter that the rout of those legal protections against obscenity didn’t become a cultural plague until the advent of streaming video in the last 15 years. That match started the current pornography addiction fire. Those legal reforms done in a spirit of blithe optimism about human sexuality in the 1960s meant that when technology made pornography such a potent social ill, we were completely unprepared to do anything about it. Today any 10-year-old with a smartphone can watch any sex act he wants as long as he has an internet connection.
You write that a defense sometimes offered for erotica and then in turn for pornography is “artistic merit,” but you say artistic merit should be an aggravating factor, not a defense. Not just that it should be, but that it was, until the 1960s. Well-written pornography doesn’t make it better: It makes it worse, more enticing.
Someone who campaigns against pornography gets depicted as weird. What are the steps to bring back some sanity? The people who engage in that kind of work know they won’t be thanked for it, but they’re doing important work anyway. We don’t need to convince the younger generation that we need to do something about the scourge of pornography, because they know it already. I predict the anti-pornography fight in the next 10 or 15 years will become more salient once the baby boomers finally fade from the scene.
Let’s go quickly through the others you profile. Economist Jeffrey Sachs throws tantrums? The aspect of Jeffrey Sachs’ persona that is most hubristic and elegant and boomerish to me is not even the way he goes about things, but how he takes it as his goal not to alleviate poverty but to eliminate it. He really did tell the world that we could get rid of all extreme poverty if only governments listened to him.
You have a nice line about American interaction with Africa: “America went from sending Africa brigades of engineers to sending brigades of economists … [to] sending PR consultants.” But let’s move on to Justice Sonia Sotomayor. As an undergraduate at Princeton, did she learn that she’d be rewarded for throwing a tantrum? That’s right. Sotomayor has built her entire public persona on the idea that she is a victim who has overcome great adversity—but she has been able to get her way at pretty much every stage professionally by playing the victim card. Far from trying to thwart her, authority figures have moved the way for her at every step of the way.
Aaron Sorkin, who brought us television’s The West Wing? A friend of mine from college told me that she had just watched the movie Casablanca and, she said, “finally realized I’ve been living in a post-Casablanca world all this time.” She meant that certain phrases in common currency come from that movie. I live in Washington, D.C., a post–West Wing world. Lots and lots of people in this town, people in real positions of power, are where they are today because they watched it at a particularly critical moment in their lives when they were deciding what they wanted to do when they grew up. If you want to know how staffers in the Obama White House saw their own jobs, you couldn’t do better than to watch old seasons of The West Wing.
Steve Jobs, establishment rebel? No, real rebel. I came to respect his genuine belief in setting people free. When he came onto the scene, IBM dominated the computer world with a mainframe model—one computer in any given office and you ask for permission for time on the computer. Some people thought the vegan diet, pilgrimage to India, John Lennon glasses, Bob Dylan lyrics-quoting were all just a put-on, but I wanted to show that, whatever his other faults, he genuinely was a believer in individual creativity and setting it free.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.