Searching For The Art Of The Impossible

While reading David Remnick’s illuminating profile of US President Obama in The New Yorker, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile of HM King Abdullah in The Atlantic some ten months ago now. Both pieces had a likeness that resonated with me, but it was difficult mentally placing what it was. It surely wasn’t the word count or writing style for Remnick’s 17,000 prolific composition leaves Goldberg’s profile in journalism dust. It wasn’t the specific subjects either. Even measuring those two begs the cliche of apples and oranges: one runs a small but difficult country in a region gone to hell; the other runs the world’s only superpower, and much of the world with it. Sure, both were unexpected leaders with daddy issues (one grew up in the shadow of his; the other was abandoned by his). But that’s not it. And it wasn’t the contrast of an American writer writing on an American President for an American audience, versus an American writer writing on an Arab Monarch, for an American audience. It wasn’t any of that.

What both pieces managed to do is remind me of Cnute the Great.

The 10th century Monarch that once reined over Demark, England, Norway and Sweden, King Cnute is said to have, according to some historians, stood before the ocean and command that the tide roll back. The tide’s expected refusal was Cnute’s way of reminding his most devoted advisors the limits of his power.

Profiles of political leaders can range from the detailed and exhaustive portrayals of an entire life, which allow us as readers to comprehend the story behind the person; and unravel the makings of a leader. Profiles can also focus on a moment during the leader’s career, of a crisis or a major policy battle. For Obama, it’s dealing with party politics, opposition obstructionism and the second half of the last political office he will likely ever hold; for King Abdullah, it’s about managing a crisis within a crisis, within another crisis. Both moments captured are about legacy; they are about the kind of country each wants to pass on to their next in line. But underneath all that, these profiles are really about the limitations of political power. A reminder that political leaders are still human.

Like it or not, we do tend to envision leaders with all-controlling ‘joysticks’, pressing magical buttons that produce instantaneous, all-encompassing solutions. Rolling back the tide, so to speak. German philosopher Max Weber once said politically-induced change was the “slow boring of hard boards”, and that anyone looking to do it must be prepared to “risk his own soul.” It’s a reminder that no one really has the power to move mountains, and leaders are fraught with such shortcomings. Change comes in small increments, and the better leaders, we are told, are in it for the long view.

Although some of this is true: political leaders are still human after all, and change does take time after all – focusing on the long view is to inherently note the limitations of political power in the short run, and subsequently, the natural limitations on what is actually achievable in the present. More importantly, the long view becomes about creating a legacy that is all about history white washing the past; romanticizing it even.

Remnick and Goldberg give us two similar accounts. We get to see all the obstacles each leader faces in their respective environments; they’re political culture. We see the limits of their power, whether by design or political reality. We see Obama describing change from the perspective of a relay swimmer “in a river full of rapid, and that river is history,” but insisting that “…You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward. And sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant.” Meanwhile, Goldberg writes that meritocracy and democratic pluralism are absent from Jordan because local culture is simply “unprepared to accept” them as ideals, and says of the King – “the nobility of his intentions is not matched by the quality of his abilities.”

Like good movies, both really make you want to see the sequel by the end of their readings. With the stage and plot set, we really do want to know how Obama’s remaining three years will turn out, and what he’ll be able to accomplish in the few months remaining that won’t be swallowed up by another round of Presidential elections. We really do want to know, with those final paragraphs of the Goldberg profile, what kind of country King Abdullah leaves to his son. We want to know what kind of legacies they leave behind. We all want to skip to that chapter of the story, but that usually entails forgetting the plot – the stuff in the middle. The process.

And sure, Obama is correct to believe that people judge leaders based on history’s writing of the larger picture, rather than the fluctuating, day-to-day throes of a presidency. But while we are reminded about the limitations of political leaders. While we are reminded to forget about the small details and join them in romanticizing the long view. While we are reminded of what will be reaped, we are also being asked to largely forget about what is being sown. And for me, the farming is as important as the harvest it yields. For me, that difference makes all the difference. It’s what will allow some to view Obama, years from now, as the President who kept America safe by hunting down terrorists, and while to a family in Yemen who lost a son or daughter to a drone attack, he will be viewed very differently. The process matters – it helps determine the story. As generations of math teachers have told us all for years: it’s not enough to have the right answer, you have to show your work too. How you got there is important. The manner in which political contestations take place, how these battles are fought, lost and/or won, are all essential, not just in the telling of history, but also essential to what we end up with. The manner in which a seed is planted, a field is sown, crops are watered, fertilized, they are all determinations in what is reaped. For the politically underdeveloped, there’s a lot more at stake, because it’s the process that helps create an entirely new political culture.

And this is where I find further problems with these sort of political profiles that have leaders, and their journalist historians,  lamenting at how they are misunderstood; how they are up against all the possible odds; how history will look kindly on them because at least we’ll know they tried their best. It’s a narrative that frames political leadership strictly within the borders of the ‘art of the possible’ as Bismark once put it, rather than ‘the art of the imagined’. And if we really dig beneath that surface of societal discontent, we might find that one of the reasons so many people are jaded with political leaders is really just the imagination deficit.

Because there are moments in political leadership that require management and strategy, and in many cases this involves tiptoeing around the status quo, not wanting to disturb it so wildly and candidly. And then there seem to be the more nuanced moments, the ones that conjure memories of the historical greats. These are the moments that demand heroism on a leader’s part. Not saving-a-cat-from-a-burning-building kind of heroism, but heroism in the true sense of the word: a boldness and an audacity. Because people – followers – want more than decent managers of the political machinery; they want leaders who can inspire. Leaders that imagine big dreams, pursue them, fail and begin again. They want to be able to share those dreams, collectively. People want leaders that wield their imagination, and then call on us to join them. And yes, we also need a different kind of follower but that’s another can of worms for a later writing. (On that subject, Obama may have put it best when he told Israeli students: “political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks.”)

But politics, as we are reminded over and over again (by men with great power), takes time. Mountains are unmoved over night. Political leaders have immense obstacles to overcome, and even limits to their political powers. And so politics is rendered the “slow boring of hard boards”.

But, in its proper context, what Weber actually goes on to say is that politics:

“…takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all-historical experience confirms the truth – that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart, which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today.”

In other words, despite all the limitations, the time, and the obstacles – at the end of the day, it’s really in the reaching for the impossible that something great is ever achieved; that some legacy of leadership is attained. That’s how the impossible usually becomes realizable. Reading these political profiles on men who wield tremendous power, I can’t help but think: where are the heroes amongst all the leaders? The people who reach for the impossible rather than weigh us down with convention? Where are those that show us how to pursue the big pursuits? Are they all like Cnute, sitting by an ocean to show us how the tide refuses to roll back?

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