By Dennis Myers
One evening in February 1993, I received a call from an aide to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. President Bill Clinton’s first state of the union speech had ended a few minutes earlier and she wanted to know what I thought of it. I told her I thought Clinton had set some kind of new record in telling the public what it wants to hear. At a time when the nation faced a massive deficit, Clinton put an upbeat spin on everything he said. Nowhere was there a sense of the difficulties the nation faced or of need for sacrifice. I suggested that she read John Kennedy’s first state of the union speech for a better example of leadership.
Here are some samples of what Kennedy had said 32 years earlier:
“Of some five and one-half million Americans who are without jobs, more than one million have been searching for work for more than four months. And during each month some 150,000 workers are exhausting their already meager jobless benefit rights. … Our problems are critical. The tide is unfavorable. The news will be worse before it is better. And while hoping and working for the best, we should prepare ourselves now for the worst.”
Republicans were harshly critical of Kennedy in 1961. They thought he was painting a bleaker picture than necessary. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona said Kennedy was panicking. Vermont Sen. George Aiken faulted the “inky black picture” the president had offered, which Aiken called “unwarranted. Things are not that bad.”
Politicians are usually inclined to tell us what we want to hear, of course. In a news conference last month, President Obama said of the “fiscal cliff” agreement, “You know, from the start, my concern was making sure that we had a tax code that was fair and that protected the middle class. And my biggest priority was making sure that middle class taxes did not go up.” He plainly suggested that those taxes did not go up. But they did. There is an explanation of why it happened, but the fact is that it DID happen, and telling people otherwise when the evidence is on their pay stubs is foolish.
Nevadans love to criticize California, but the Golden State has improved its fiscal condition significantly in the last two years, a period during which the Silver State’s fiscal condition continued limping. One of the reasons California was better able to deal with its problems is that Gov. Jerry Brown did not try to con the state’s voters. He made it clear that the state’s problems were serious and all players, including groups championed by his fellow Democrats, were going to have to experience some pain. Within two years he had eliminated the state’s decade-old deficit. Reassured by his candor and his willingness to upset interest groups, the members of the public joined in and approved by 10 percent a tax hike on themselves.
By contrast, last month Nevada’s Gov. Brian Sandoval gave a message to the legislature full of upbeat terms that seem unrelated to the state’s poor economic health. The state’s economy is improving, he said, neglecting to note that it remains more distressed than any other. What urgency is there if the governor says the gambling industry – formerly the state’s economic engine and now in sharp decline – is “rich with promise”? If worse news comes, his credibility will be lower because he didn’t level with the public when it counted.
Telling people what they NEED to hear instead of what they WANT to hear is one of the tests of political leadership. David Halberstam once wrote that one of the reasons Lyndon Johnson was a failure as a national leader was that, on Vietnam, he could not bring himself to tell the public the unpleasant facts. Instead, Johnson kept using stunts – bringing the U.S. commander home to address a joint session of Congress, or holding a Hawaiian summit with the Saigon dictator.
“He was unwilling to trust the public, but tried instead to outsmart it … every time there was a trip or a gimmick, there would be a positive response – the nation would be pleased, the polls would show an increase in his popularity … Each time the cry against the war rose, he would fend off the critics, but he would use up a little more of his credibility. Thus he was buying temporary success but creating long-term problems. A smart politician doesn’t do that. Instead, he suffers immediate problems and takes the long-range gains …”
It’s true that we often punish our politicians for candor. But just as often, the public rewards honesty and responds to disagreeable news. It’s the second option that contributes to the well being of community and makes history.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.