Carlson: Where are the leaders?

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Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

In talking with newspaper editors about running excerpts of the book of reminiscences of my years working with and for Governor Cecil D. Andrus, I often encountered the question “where are today’s Cecil Andruses?” Or “why can’t we produce leaders like Cecil Andrus, or Dan Evans or Mark Hatfield any more?”

In other words, “where have all the leaders gone?”

Cecil Andrus reflects leadership to the core of his being. While there are many definitions of leadership, and Andrus would fulfill most, it is one of those things you just know when you see it. As long as people have known Andrus they will tell you he has always possessed the quality that says “I’m leading; I know where I’m going. Follow or get out of the way!”

As Andrus Center President Marc Johnson points out in his fine introduction to the book Cecil Andrus: Idaho’s Greatest Governor, Idaho’s only four times elected governor and the state’s first ever cabinet officer would have emerged as the leader in any situation life might have placed him. He possesses the talent and ability to run any size organization, public or private, including the presidency of the United States.

There’s a reason why no less a talent than President William Jefferson Clinton, while still reeling from the early challenges he was fumbling and rumors were circulating that he might face a primary challenge, sent an operative to Idaho to check out speculation that Cecil Andrus might be recruited to mount that challenge.

The book takes a swing at trying to shed light on how Andrus emerged from an ordinary background and became such an extraordinarily successful public official. Through anecdotes and stories it sheds light on his leadership style and the political rules he followed, often encapsulated in witty colloquial phrases.

He had the unique ability to give a person his undivided attention, to listen, to empathize, to really connect. He had an extraordinary memory for names and details of a person’s life. He always conveyed he was a public servant, felt truly privileged to represent his state or his nation, knew that public service was both a calling and a trust.

Above all he knew a governor was elected to solve problems, to meet challenges with a confidence that was contagious. The optimism he radiated was truly infectious.

The key was an ability to communicate in language the average person could relate with. He wasn’t a great orator like a Frank Church, but he was a far better communicator than most, especially through the television medium. No less a former television newscaster than the late Oregon Governor Tom McCall, no slouch himself at the art form, once said the two best communicators he ever saw, especially for communicating through television, were Ronald Reagan and Cecil Andrus.

There is one other aspect of successful leadership Andrus also mastered best described by Italian renaissance writer Nicco Machiavelli in his classic, The Prince: a leader has to instill a bit of fear in opponents and subordinates that if crossed there is a price to be paid.

Andrus held people accountable. The fact is if one in his employ violated any of his cardinal rules of conduct from not being loyal to conducting a personal affair with someone else in the office to letting bad news appear in the paper before informing him (his “no surprises” rule) by sundown they were gone.

Andrus was also a superb vote counter. During his 14 years he vetoed 120 some bills. Only one was ever over-ridden. The double-crossers paid a price, as did most that crossed him. If someone lied to him, that was it. He never trusted them again nor really dealt with them as a legitimate player.

The book, then, may help one understand how and why a Cecil Andrus emerged and was such a dominant political force in his adopted state for 50 years. It does not, however, answer directly the question of why there appear to be no such leaders on today’s scene.

Indirectly, and by inference, it provides clues. A fair question, though, might be could a Cecil Andrus emerge today or better yet, would a Cecil Andrus even want to try?

Andrus would be the first to say today’s political environment is too poisoned by no compromise mentalities dominated by partisanship, ideology and attitudes which portray opponents as just not wrong about an issue, but evil for holding a view or position contrary to the other’s orthodoxy.

While “hardball” politics in every generation is nasty and dirty, the compounding factor today is the internet and the 24 hour news cycle which sees totally unsubstantiated charges go viral in a nano-second. The media thrives on conflict as never before and has become a monster that demands constant feeding.

Had this environment existed in 1960, Andrus will tell you he is not sure he would even have tried for public office.

The challenge for today’s body politic is to restore civility and respect for another’s view and reject the environment that rewards incivility and disrespect, that glorifies war with absolute winners and abject losers. If the governed make it clear they understand the importance to all to reward peace that continues progress towards a more perfect union, governors worthy of trust and respect will emerge—-I hope. But then, like Cecil Andrus, I’m an optimist.

A native of Kellogg, a former teacher at Kootenai, and a former journalist, Chris Carlson served as press secretary to former Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus for ten years. He is the founding partner of the Gallatin Group, is now retired and he and his wife, Marcia, reside at Medimont.

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