The Paradoxes of Democratic Leadership

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A LITTLE over a month into his term, a debate has opened over whether Bill Clinton is spending too much of his time and energy behaving as if he were still a candidate for the American presidency, rather than the occupant of that office. He should spend more time governing and less on the campaign trail, the argument goes.

The counsel from this corner, should anyone ask, is that he should continue to campaign as much as possible.

The need to do so goes beyond the mere need to keep selling his programs to a skeptical electorate in this age of talk-show democracy. Clinton needs to keep campaigning for not just his specific programs but the whole concept of a more realistic political dialogue than the nation has had for the past several years. He also needs to keep making his pitch directly to the people: This has to do with the electronic global village but even more important, with the "flatness" of the hierarchy of American socie ty.

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Millions of Americans, including self-described conservatives, are wedded to government programs ranging from below-cost timber sales to automatic cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security payments. And yet somehow the public political discussion has been held hostage to the government-is-bad "No new taxes!" rhetoric.

If there is new hope within the body politic, it has to do with a new level of leadership from the White House: a leadership that undertakes to get the people to do difficult things, such as controlling health-care costs and reducing the budget deficit.

A paradox is inherent in the idea of leadership within an egalitarian democratic society. Who will take charge, take an expansive view of his or her job description, and keep the political process from falling into a least-common-denominator approach that says, "I won't rock the boat if you promise you won't either"?

Liberty and equality are the ideals, but history has looked most favorably on presidents with an expansive rather than minimalist view of the office.

Bruce Miroff explores leadership in his new book, "Icons of Democracy: American Leaders as Heroes, Aristocrats, Dissenters, and Democrats." He considers nine "emblematic figures": Hamilton, Adams, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and Kennedy, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eugene V. Debs, and Martin Luther King Jr. His aim is "to distinguish those types of American leadership that foster democratic political life from other types - often more prominent and heralded - that undermine it."

Calling Lincoln "the best model Americans have of democratic leadership," Miroff writes, "Democratic concepts, such as majority rule and public good, have often been applied in ways that prove indifferent or injurious to individuals. It is easy, too, for a leader ... to ignore the consequences of his actions in the lives of specific people. Lincoln did not fall victim to these tendencies. He treated democratic leadership as a relationship involving individuals as well as large groups."

Miroff borrows from the terminology of scholar Carol Gilligan ("In a Different Voice") to say that Lincoln epitomized both the typically masculine "ethic of rights" and the feminine "ethic of care" or "ethic of responsibility."

And like other writers on Lincoln, Miroff recounts how Lincoln made himself available to the public. In wartime Washington, he was said to be "far more accessible than many a chief of bureau or clerk." Lincoln called his hours spent with ordinary people "public opinion baths," which kept him in touch with the people - as President Clinton's "town meetings" are supposed to do.

It would be easier for Clinton if things were harder. Franklin Roosevelt could rally people against the Great Depression and "fear itself"; Winston Churchill rallied his against an enemy who rained bombs nightly onto their capital. Clinton has to inveigh against deteriorating infrastructure and other polysyllabic evils.

We remember that Jimmy Carter tried to describe turning down the thermostat and putting on an extra sweater as the "moral equivalent of war" and it didn't work, especially once people realized what the initials spelled. Clinton will find a certain modesty in his rhetoric to be a good thing. But the problems of our times, too, are important, and they need to be addressed with active leadership.

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