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What we need in this country is a new definition of toughness. As one who is very tough himself in ways that are not obvious, I am ideally positioned to describe the qualities of the new toughness that should become the model for our leaders.
As it is, when Americans think toughness they think swagger. For example, our current president long ago adopted the Texas swagger, a popular genre for would-be swaggerers, although connoisseurs detect in the presidential swagger a hint of the Eastern Prep School Stroll and the Ivy League Strut — that certain flexing of the shoulders signaling that the swaggerer’s daddy has more money than your daddy or at least belongs to a better country club.
Of course, with the swagger goes the tough attitude, not only to enemies — “bring it on!” — but also to those parts of the English language, such as syntax and grammar, which suggest effeteness. This behavior has been the ruling model for tough national leadership going on eight testosterone-soaked years. How the people have loved it! (Well, not all of them, just the ones in need of counseling.)
But I say it’s time for a change. I say, yes, we can have a new norm for leadership that does not involve the suggestion of chest thumping. As you know, the Neanderthals were big on chest thumping and look what happened to them! They became radio talk-show hosts before the invention of radio, a certain path to extinction. With their last breath, they denounced global cooling as a myth.
As for me, it is my quiet toughness that has kept me from becoming extinct or retired, which I am told can feel very like being extinct unless one keeps busy.
Yet poor judges of character sometimes look at me and see a possible chairman of the National Milquetoast Society. Why, these worshippers of a false toughness cannot see past the exterior librarian that appears to be me and see the inner Chuck Norris that is me.
These people would sing a different tune if they saw me at hugely tedious office meetings when the tough guys wilt and the iron gals falter and I, with my black belt in boredom, just sit there in my serene toughness. No, I am not one for swaggering or chest thumping. I am too tough for cheap tricks.
The false notion of toughness is distorting our political life. Just the other day, the president was over swaggering in Israel suggesting that Barack Obama was an appeaser. He didn’t mention Obama by name and he didn’t mention Neville Chamberlain by name either, but it was clear to the folks in the cheap seats that they were one and the same.
We shall hear a lot more of the old British prime minister before this election is over. The Republicans will wheel him out at every opportunity, with his antique suit and wing-tipped collar and his arm holding up the paper foolishly promising “peace for our time” in 1938. They will do this to make Barack Obama look like someone who would have tea with the latest versions of Adolf Hitler and give away the Sudetenland, which, as you know, poses identical issues to today’s world situation.
A tough leader, it is suggested, can’t talk to the leaders of Iran and Cuba without preconditions. The point of the preconditions is to prevent the likelihood of talks. For tough leaders, talks are anathema to the very idea of toughness — never talk and never change your mind, that’s the thing. Just swagger and chest-thump your way to world peace and international understanding.
This has about as much chance of succeeding as Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy had of succeeding.
What we need is a leader who is tough enough to have talks with enemies, who is tough enough to change his mind if his policies don’t succeed, who is tough of character and not of bluster, who is really tough, not swaggering pretend-tough, and, for good measure, is too tough to be an obvious twit like Chamberlain.
To bolster my case, I summon now as a witness from the afterlife a world leader tougher than Hitler. Yes, Winston Churchill, the great critic of appeasement who succeeded Chamberlain as British prime minister during the war and who in 1954 famously said: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
It is a horrible play on words but good advice. We have war-war now and weak leaders shrink from the prospect of jaw-jaw in fear of being fitted for Chamberlain’s old suit. We have flop-flop now because no swaggerer-in-chief dares to commit a flip-flop that makes sense. Our current definition of toughness is really tough on America.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)