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msnbc.com
updated 4/15/2009 12:38:46 PM ET 2009-04-15T16:38:46

Captains are back — as in Sullenberger and now Phillips — and with them, the idea that our leaders can be trusted to know what they are doing, and to do it.

If that radical notion takes hold in politics, it’s easy to see the beneficiary: President Barack Obama, who has dramatically and confidently taken the wheel of the ship of state and who acted calmly and carefully in the pirate standoff.

But it’s also easy to see the risk: Obama could conclude he has the right (and need) to issue commands to Congress and the country.

Before we start fretting, however, let’s stop to admire something we have come to regard as rare. It is the triumph of credentialed, licensed leadership.

Capt. Chesley “Sulley” Sullenberger III of U.S. Airways and Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama proved more than worthy of their titles and positions.

They were brave, capable, shrewd and deeply knowledgeable. They saved, respectively, 155 passengers on a plane that landed in the Hudson River last January, and 19 American shipmates trapped by pirates on a cargo vessel last week in the dangerous waters off the coast of East Africa.

The more you know about them the more you realize that they had prepared all of their lives for their fateful moments of crisis in the air and on the sea.

Sullenberger had an astonishing academic and military record at the Air Force Academy and had earned two graduate degrees in addition to logging 19,000 hours of flight time. He had a lifelong interest in gliders, and while a giant Airbus is by no means a glider, he in effect glided his passengers to safety.

If anyone could have prepared for pirates, Phillips did.

Trained at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, he was regarded as both gifted and studious. Peter Stalkus, a fellow maritime captain who has worked with him for 23 years, said Phillips is known as “the Larry Bird of Chief Mates,” according to the Boston Globe.

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While an old sea dog, with more than 30 years at sea, Phillips was also remarkably current, reading about and studying modern-day piracy. He monitored conditions off the African coast on the web when he wasn’t actually facing them at sea.

Their successes, miraculous as they were, were not accidents. These were real leaders.

Being a leader in America (and of Americans) has never been an easy task.

In our raucous, continental democracy, we tend to doubt — quickly — the very people we elevate. We ask: How can anyone be presumptuous enough to rise above us?

We have squared that circle with credentials. In our supposed meritocracy, people who lead are the people who earn the right to do so — not members of some hereditary class.

And yet we have spent more than a generation in this country disparaging even those with credentials – often with good reason.

The trend began in the Sixties with Vietnam and Watergate. “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam famously wrote, were the ones who blundered us into an unwinnable, senseless war that cost 50,000 American lives. Even the innermost sanctums of the White House, Woodward and Bernstein reported, were infested with a kind of Mafia-like, cut-rate, ruthless corruption.

Before Watergate and Vietnam, according to Gallup, three in four voters said that federal officials tried do to the “right thing” all or most of the time. Since the late 1970s, that ratio has dropped to one in four — and stayed there.

It didn’t get much better when the emblems of leadership in America were our two baby boomer presidents — a brilliant one who couldn’t fully grow up, and one who dismissed facts that might upset his rigid worldview.

The latest credentialed leaders to disappoint and dismay us all were the big shots on Wall Street, who took their MBAs and arcane mathematical risk models and drove us all off the cliff into the biggest economic abyss since the Depression.

The disaffection and disappointment of baby boomer voters has since been amplified by Gen X and Gen Y Americans who in many ways are even more skeptical of leadership, protecting themselves from disappointment with an armor of cynicism and dismissive, sarcastic humor and satire.

According to Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, there is a downside to the hilarity of shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.” The underlying message is that no one can be taken seriously as a political leader.

In the 2008 campaign, Obama — whether you agreed with him or not — performed some-thing of a miracle. He got voters, especially young voters, not only to support him, but also to agree that a restoration of the idea of leadership was possible. He did it with his cool demeanor (message: I’m not craven) and by basing his claim on the net-based movement he represented. It wasn’t about him, he suggested, but his email list.

Now he has a chance to follow Sullenberger and Phillips on the roster of can-do captains.

But to succeed, he will need not only experience (and he is still light on that), but also wisdom. He must understand that, outside of the military, you can’t issue orders in Washington, even if your own party has a big majority in Congress and you are riding high in the opinion polls.

Otherwise, you won’t save the ship. You’ll cause a mutiny.

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