One of Us, Yet Above Us

WHEN Tom Foley walks into a room now, old colleagues stand. The salutation is more often ``Mr. Speaker,'' less often ``Tom.'' A respectful distance is building around his leadership role in the House of Representatives. It comes with the territory as head of one of the legislative chambers of government. And he is, after all, next in line after the vice president to succeed to the Oval Office. But when one considers with what force Foley's predecessor, Rep. Jim Wright, was driven from the speakership for various ethical shortcomings, the respectful distance of office-holding can be seen to have another, negative side, and to offer no lasting career protection.

Do citizens realize how quickly pressures build around the leaders they elect, and how they may themselves contribute to those pressures?

A political leader is vulnerable. The politician who fights to get to the top - whether to the presidency, speakership, or lesser pinnacle - has to make commitments. These commitments represent IOUs their bearers expect to redeem. Foley may be less vulnerable on this account because he came in by default. But he does not escape accountability for the checking of actions against promises that befalls the House leader and his party.

Times change: In Mr. Wright's case, the ethics of the past which got him to the speakership could not sustain him from a challenge under today's standards. It became too late for him to learn from his mistakes.

Elected leaders may not report to boards of directors, but they do share with bureaucratic and corporate leaders other challenges: The view from the top rung differs from that of even the rung next down. Those who reach the top are unprepared for the hard choices, for which there is no real training ground. People below the leader look out from their own levels and demand, Why hasn't he done this or that?

``When I was undersecretary of state, I spent a long time explaining why we had to cut the resource pie a certain way,'' says David Newsom, who now teaches the arts of diplomacy. ``The gap can be breached,'' Mr. Newsom says. ``A leader can maintain the confidence of those below him or her, who may not have the whole picture. But it takes a lot of effort - listening, explaining, attention.''

The power that invites respect also engenders fear.

``People are always ambivalent about those who have power over them,'' writes Harry Levinson of the Harvard Business School in his management classic, ``Executive,'' (Harvard University Press). ``They worry about how this power will be used.''

Mr. Levinson then quotes from ``The Shoes of the Fisherman,'' Morris L. West's novel about the election of the first Russian pope. One of the new pope's fellow cardinals muses: ``We elected him in the name of God, and now suddenly we're afraid of him. He has made no threat, he has changed no appointment, he has asked nothing but what we profess to offer. Yet here we sit, weighing him like conspirators and making ready to fight him. What has he done to us?''

Presidential scholar Thomas E. Cronin observes from yet another angle the ambivalence Americans feel toward their leaders. They want their president to be decent and just, but also decisive and guileful; programmatic yet pragmatic; innovative and inventive yet majoritarian and responsive; inspirational but not overpromising; open and sharing and at the same time courageous and independent. Mr. Cronin notes in ``The State of the Presidency,'' (Little, Brown), the basic rub: Citizens want their leader to be a common man who gives an uncommon performance - one of us, yet above us.

The very checks and balances of power in the American system reflects the founders' distrust of the exercisers of power.

A column will not alter the American political character. Our leaders' mistakes may be overlooked. But must we not try to understand the psychological conditions in which they serve - and lean rather toward support of them than to mistrust and carping criticism?

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