Mr. Manchin Goes to Washington

Washington DC is an interesting town to say the least.  One thing is certain, it’s a company town and the sooner newbies grasp that the better

James Stewart as Sen. Jefferson Smith

One of the smartest things anyone can do is spend time developing an appreciation for the rules of the game, and one can only do that if they are willing to be taught by experienced pros.  I’ve always been fascinated by what Washington is willing to forgive in team players — huge, egregious, frankly disgusting faux pas and outright unethical behavior — as well as with the seemingly minor infractions that will be bashed over the infidel’s head for all time.

Joe Manchin is getting creamed for a dumb decision, and I think it is deserved.  What I mean by that is this:  The dumb decision was not skipping the DADT vote to spend time at a family party, per se; the dumb decision was not comprehending that as a green U. S. Senator, he has dues to pay.  Personally, I think he should have showed up to vote, that this is a serious piece of legislation, and that he owed casting his vote to the people of West Virginia.  But in terms of political strategy, he owed his presence and vote to his colleagues in the Senate.  This is the big leagues now, not home state goofball back slaps, wink wink nudge nudge stuff.

My observation is that Mr. Manchin keeps a tight old-school crowd around him and gives them tremendous power and influence.  That trust was misplaced in this case, as loyalists used to playing the game in West Virginia who have never done more than watch the game in DC are ill-equipped to advise him on the national scale.

Sure, there are some people in West Virgina who are stirring a crock pot and giving props to the idea that a nice family man prioritized the holidays with loved ones over those radical homosexuals.  That was yesterday’s game, and if Mr. Manchin wants to get serious about winning today’s game he should give the cronies a desk job and start listening, closely, to people who understand Washington.

It’s a difficult balance, in DC as in life itself; personal priorities vs. the requirements of the job.  It may be most difficult in politics.  Manchin made a mistake, and that hardly makes him unique.  His next move will be very important.  I suggest it should start with being willing to expand his advisory group beyond the old neighborhood.  There are people who are good with numbers, who no doubt told the senator that his vote could only hurt him one way or the other, that whatever he voted he would not cast a deciding vote, and that the math suggested he stay home.  Politics involves math, but those who are the very best at what they do know it involves more art.

As a constituent I am hopeful for greater art appreciation moving forward.

Image credit: American Rhetoric Movie Speeches

How D’Ya Like Them Apples? IQ and Education

Someone asked me last week if I think the bell curve of intelligence quotient scores is even across political parties and political positions.  Without hesitation I said yes.  I don’t see any reasonable explanation for why IQ scores would necessary correlate to a person’s political opinions.  I do think, though, that the likelihood that our nation can even out with some moderate positioning on a range of issues is hampered by our struggles with educational attainment rates and public education dynamics in general.

How can we ever expect to communicate with each other to achieve more balanced and reasoned understanding when test scores and drop out rates indicate we are failing to establish even basic language skills?  And if we never leave the communities where we grew up to learn in an environment with a diverse representation of people from around the country and even the world, how can we develop appreciation for diversity and what people different from ourselves have to teach us?

In the midst of my pondering, I turned to Will.  Will always helps me figure things out.

Good Will Hunting is a favorite film in our house.  We ping back to it often, from personal reasons to conceptual storytelling to a love of Robin Williams in dramatic roles.  A quote that gets a lot of play on a regular basis is, “How d’ya like them apples?”

Photo credit: E. Gaucher

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recall Will (Matt Damon) is trying to get the attention and admiration of Sklyar (Minnie Driver) in a bar frequented by Harvard University students.  An arrogant pretty-boy tries to embarrass him by asking him questions about books he’s sure Will has never heard of, let alone read.  Much to his dismay, Will knows the books.  Very well.  Well enough to end up humiliating the other guy, and well enough to get Sklyar’s phone number on a cocktail napkin before she leaves.  Outside the bar, Will knocks on the glass to get stuck-up’s attention.  “Do you like apples?” Will asks.  “What?”  the guy insides replies.  “I said, do you like apples?”  The guy shrugs and nods, confused.  Will slams the napkin with the newly inked phone number up on the glass and into his face.  “Well, I got her number.  How d’ya like them apples?”

The scene is a classic illustration of the disconnect between education and intelligence.  The entire movie pivots around questions of what it means to know anything.  In the apples scene, Will comes out on top.  He has exposed himself to great works of art, and he has a photographic memory that allows him to regurgitate on cue lengthy analyses of everything from sculpture to political theory.  What’s brewing underneath his cocky persona, however, is anything but educated.  We find out later in the story that he has, for good reasons, completely isolated himself from real life experience.  He lives in his head with the thoughts and lives of others running roughshod over his courage to engage life on his own terms, and to have a true education.

Sean (Robin Williams) nails him on it with this memorable monologue:

So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny… on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations. Him and the pope. Sexual orientation. The whole works, right? I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. Seeing that. If I ask you about women, you’ll probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites…… But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman… and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap… and watched him gasp his last breath lookin’ to you for help. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. I look at you. I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky, scared sh*tless kid. But you’re a genius, Will. No one denies that.

Will is a smart kid.  Smarter than smart.  But he is lashing out with information as a weapon rather than being willing to let other people teach him anything, and rather than allowing himself to be vulnerable to the many possibilities that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does about what life is really about.

Intelligence can be a wonderful thing, and fortunately we know now that there is more than one way to measure it.  Intelligence of any kind, however, requires the humility and depth that only participating in a shared environment of respect for real learning can deliver.  It starts in school, but it hardly ends there.

Actually, if you do it right, it never ends. And that mindset is the one that has the unique power to moderate the sound and fury of today’s political climate, regardless of what else a person believes.

The Short Ladders

I have a friend who, when he moved to West Virginia, was taken aside at a cocktail reception and told knowingly, “One great thing about this state, the ladders are short.”

 The ladders are short meant that unlike many other places, an ambitious person can climb very quickly to positions of power and recognition without too much effort or time invested.  Ten years ago I didn’t think this was such a bad thing.  Today, I’m rethinking that belief. 

The Short Ladder

 Let’s start with the good side.  It is absolutely true that due to the very small pool of college-educated people in our state, there is limited competition for job opportunities that require a degree.  I moved to Charleston from Chapel Hill, which was the opposite environment – “The Triangle” of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill is one of the richest regions of educational attainment in the country.  NC State, Duke, and UNC support a community where 3 out of 4 people have at least a B.A.  In West Virginia, 3 out of 4 have never been beyond high school. 

So there is some basic excitement one can generate in these parts by just showing up and being willing to engage a project or problem.  With the economy being what it is today, I think it is even more likely than it was when I moved here that someone can advance their opportunities for leadership experiences and promotions to decision-making positions on a compressed timeline.  What it may take 10 years to build elsewhere may be accomplished here in less than 5 if you play your cards right and know the right people.   Before I had been in state one year, I served as the executive director of two nonprofit organizations (simultaneously) and was appointed special assistant to the governor.  I say this to underscore that I didn’t just observe it, I lived it; and quite honestly, it was thrilling.  I don’t know that I wouldn’t take these opportunities again if I had a “do-over,” but I certainly would proceed with greater caution.

Now, the bad side.  There is a lot to be said for taking time to get somewhere.  The process reminds me of building a house.  The faster it goes up, the less likely it is to be well-constructed.  It may be pretty, but the first heavy rain shows the roof leaks. 

Taking time also mitigates the dynamic of ambitious people having a sense of owing someone for their opportunities.  I see a lot of young gun types taken under the wing of the old guard, helped along quickly, and then just as quickly losing their edge by becoming part of the status quo overnight.  One goes from working on reforming the system to protecting turf much faster here than in what I call the natural world.  Sadly, this is exactly what we don’t need in West Virginia.

A mass exodus of young people for opportunities elsewhere 20 years ago contributes to older professionals being anxious to hire those they see as having potential to succeed.  That exodus left a big hole that will take a long time to heal.  Sooner or later, folks start to realize what’s under their feet is a little thin.  The  politics of elected office as well as the simple politics of human nature start to show through the paint, and who owes what to whom becomes an issue. 

Looking down from the short ladder reminds a person that though he or she may be up, they are not that far up.  Another unfortunate feature of the short ladder is that it often tops out abruptly.  No one wants to go down, but where to next?  I see more than a few frustrated people at the end of their short ladders. 

This is a cautionary tale.  In no way do I think this is every story or that everyone who takes advantage of an attractive offer early in their career is making a mistake or destined to fail.  But I do think there is much more to the decision than saying yes.  It is an unusal situation, and requires wisdom that is likewise unusual in the very people most likely start up the short ladder.

Before you put a foot on the short ladder rung, ask yourself if you wouldn’t really rather wait for a good, strong, taller ladder.  Perhaps better one of those than 5 or 6 of the others.  As my girlfriends who lived on the top floor of our (elevator-less) college dorm used to tell the guys, “It’s worth the climb.”

C’mon. Don’t Be a Hater.

Do you ever find yourself on the verge of a back and forth public comment exchange, and then decide to just drop it?  Well I did that yesterday. Except now I can’t drop it.

Stilletos are good.

I am amazed by the animosity people who claim to love West Virginia can muster for anyone who sees the world differently than they do.  There is a vibrant young woman who had her first op-ed in The Charleston Gazette Monday, and her topic was social media in politics.  Now here comes a fresh voice — a bit of an attitude, I’ll warrant, but that’s part of the freshness — and what kind of response does she get?  A very snarky put-down and dismissal as having nothing to offer.

Now, you can like it or not like it, but you have to be in some deep denial if you don’t understand that the first African-American to be elected leader of the free world did it with the brilliant use of social media.  That fact alone should wake you way, way up.

Flops are good, too.

Monday’s commentary, like it or not, has a great deal to offer.  It’s not about what you like, or what you wish were true.  It’s about what is, and from where the writer sits her job is to connect politicians with what is.

It’s also what was.  The writer was not comparing Carte Goodwin to JFK as a change agent.  She was saying that they both bask in the glow of a similar perception of savoir faire.  Yes, it’s shallow and goofy to think elected officials are “hot.”  As a friend of mine put it, “Whoa.  That’s a low bar, the U.S. Congress.”  I still crack up that JFK was considered yummy.  Maybe, maybe, next to a sweating Nixon.  But really?  Folks need to get out more.  The bar goes much lower when you limbo at the state level.  But I digress………….(and a little of my breakfast just came up).

The point is that public perception is a valid and important element of elected office, and social media is driving a great deal of public perception.  We can argue all day and all night about whether or not that ought to be true, but while we argue there are people who know how to take advantage of solid strategy who are getting elected, and re-elected, via their socially networked connections to a large proportion of their constituencies.

My hat’s off to this young lady.  True wisdom is not the hallmark of the young, but it’s not rare to have strong opinions and the courage to try to change the world, and to be crazy enough to think you can do it.  West Virginia is chock full of a bunch of old people.  How about we get clue and listen to the very few young people we have left who are still willing to participate in making a difference?