ADOLESCENTS VS. GROWN-UPS
Watching world leaders over the last few months, I have taken to dividing them into two camps: the adolescents and the grown-ups.
Among the adolescents are George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac, as well as Kim Jong Il, (the late?) Saddam Hussein and nearly all other dictators.
Among the grown-ups are Tony Blair, Colin Powell, Kofi Annan, and Vladimir Putin.
There are a few adolescents who make a good show of pretending to be grown-ups: Donald Rumsfeld comes to mind.
On the other hand, there are a few grown-ups who seem on casual first glance to be adolescents: Bill Clinton, for example.
The adolescent/grown-up divide does not match up with age or political positions. It has to do more with a certain tendency of mind.
The defining characteristic of the adolescent world leader is his unwavering belief (or, at least, his pose) that, when it comes to world affairs, he knows all the answers, the same way your 16-year-old son or daughter knows all the answers. The adolescents defining mode of communication is bluster. His language is moralistic and repetitious. He entertains no contradictions; he will not even listen if you tell him he is wrong. The adolescent never goes off message, because he knows only one message: Im right, and youre an idiot, a phony, a villain, or all three. (Think of Donald Rumsfelds press briefings.)
If the adolescent has experienced pain or sadness, he pretends it has not affected him. If he is uncertain, he pretends he is absolutely sure. If he is insecure--and the adolescent always is--he just flexes his muscles and blusters some more. Short-term results matter to the adolescent much more than long-term consequences, just as they do to your teenage son or daughter. The United States, I am not the first to point out, is an adolescent nation.
In contrast, the defining characteristic of the grown-up world leader is his recognition that everything in world affairs is complicated and that no one knows how things will turn out. The grown-ups defining mode of communication is debate--that is, he listens to his opponents and shapes answers that directly address their objections.
A grown-up will sometimes appear to contradict himself, because he feels it when the tectonic plates of the world are shifting beneath him. Grown-ups have experienced pain and sadness (not necessarily first hand) and they acknowledge them and make them part of their character. (Clintons troubles with his step-father as a youth are one of the reasons the black community has always recognized him as a grown-up, despite his sexual immaturity.) A grown-up is not afraid to express his uncertainty, even while making the either-or decisions all leaders must make. He accepts his insecurities and does not pretend to be more than he is, except when that pretense is necessary in order for him to lead (see Franklin Roosevelts pretending to be healthy). I am not the first to point out that most European nations are grown up.
U.N. chief arms inspector Hans Blix is a grown-up, and so of course are Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Jimmy Carter.
Actually, now that I think about it, there arent a lot of grown-ups among world leaders. Grown-ups dont often go into politics.
Among leaders from the not-too-distant past, Mao Tse-tung, Lyndon Johnson, Charles DeGaulle, Nikita Kruschev, Margaret Thatcher and the Ayatollah Komeini were adolescents. Winston Churchill was pretty much an adolescent blusterer to the end, though a valuable one.
In the category of grown-ups from the past, Id include F.D.R., Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon (grown-ups are not necessarily nice), Jimmy Carter, Gorbachev, and George Bush the elder. J.F.K. started as an adolescent but became a grown-up sometime around the Cuban Missile Crisis. I suspect Ronald Reagan became a grown-up when he realized he was losing his mind. Most veterans of the military who have seen actual combat are grown-ups; thats why voters would love to vote for Colin Powell.
The difference between an adolescent and a grown-up is most vivid in George W. Bush and Tony Blair. In the run-up to the Iraq War, Bush gave a single press conference, at which, no matter the question asked by whatever pre-selected reporter, he gave one of three prefabricated, always-on-message answers. Blair, on the other hand, regularly stood scriptless before the House of Commons in full debate mode, taking on the inflammatory objections, not to mention the catcalls, of the opposition, and he had to answer them extemporaneously and directly, else he would have been the laughingstock of his nation. Blair, in other words, had to entertain opposing positions and think on his feet.
It would be interesting to see how George W. would perform if forced to defend his policies before a hooting House of Representatives. (An aside: How many of you think George W. Bush will agree to more than two debates before the 2004 presidential elections? Raise your hands. Now: How spontaneous do you think his handlers will allow those debates to be?)
Go back and look at how Bush and Blair made their arguments for the Iraq War. For Bush, it was all simplicity: Were good, Saddam is bad, well make the world a better place in short order, by golly, and anybody who thinks otherwise or worries about what this means for the worlds future (read: the French) is a weasel. For Blair, it was more complicated than that: Saddam is dangerous and, regrettably, we must risk the sad, uncertain consequences of war to get rid of him, and anybody who thinks otherwise may be well-intentioned but is, well, mistaken.
Bush seemed downright eager to go to war. Blair, at least, seemed reluctant, although committed. When millions of Americans protested against the war, Bush went to Camp David, dismissing the protesters as misguided; he could be confident that the majority of the American public will always follow the bluster of a war-promoting president. Blair faced a tougher, grown-up public, and he had to defend the war in the face of polls that showed his electorate solidly and stubbornly against it. Would Karl Rove have allowed Bush to prosecute the war if 65% of the American public had remained against it? Dont make me laugh.
Though I think he was wrong on the Iraq War, I respect Tony Blair. Hes a smart grown-up in a grown-up country. George Bush, on the other hand, is like a 15-year-old with a gun: He simply makes the world afraid. And as for the United States, well, we will earn the respect of the world when we once again elect a grown-up.