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American idols and American leaders

WASHINGTON – In America these days, we are obsessed with idols, but have no leaders. We are mesmerized by every round of “American Idol,” but despair of finding authority figures in public life we can trust to run the country.

For a brief moment after the attacks of 9/11, voters suspended their disbelief about the ability of leaders to handle their jobs. People wanted the president to succeed: he was the only president we had in a moment of profound crisis. Public attitudes toward the Congress, toward business leaders, toward cultural institutions — all soared on the strength of patriotic unity.

That moment has long since evaporated. Voters have lost faith in President Bush, in Congress as now constituted, in leaders of all kinds.

The next election cycle — the midterm season now under way and the presidential campaign soon to follow — will be about one thing: leadership. Not just identifying who leaders are, but restoring the very idea that leadership is possible.

The buzzword in Washington now is “sour.” The political mood is “sour,” Karl Rove said the other day, because on TV Americans are seeing brave men and women dying in Iraq. But the mood is far worse than “sour,” and the reasons are far deeper than the evening news. America is not a carton of milk, and the bleak public attitude isn’t the result of an inevitable chemical process.

It’s the result of real action, or lack of action — of lack of character, of guts, of adaptability, of attention to detail, of quality. If there were a J.D. Powers category for excellence in political leadership in this country, who would win it?

According to the polls, no one. Americans see massive, feckless incompetence in elected leaders at all levels, from President George W. Bush to Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans. They see a Congress that has lost what little sense of fiscal discipline it managed to acquire a decade ago; a president who seems either unwilling or incapable of adapting to changing circumstances; an electoral system paralyzed by the never-ending pursuit of campaign cash; a national media often lost in circus sideshows.

Watching Nagin on the MSNBC debate in New Orleans Tuesday, it was easy to be charmed by his riverboat nonchalance — until you recalled what historian Doug Brinkley reported about the mayor’s hapless reclusiveness during Katrina. Watching the president deliver his prime-time address on immigration, it was easy to be impressed by his forceful delivery — until you recalled that his government admits that it can’t even keep track of legal visa holders here.

It’s not just the men, it’s the events. Americans feel overwhelmed by global forces beyond their control or even understanding — forces that even the most competent of leadership would be hard-pressed to handle.

The planetary waves include: inexorably rising oil prices, gathering environmental degradation, predatory Chinese trading practices, and the seemingly unstoppable flood of illegal immigrants. President Bush has focused, justifiably, on fighting what he calls “war on terror.” He will — and may as well — take credit for the fact that terrorists have not landed another blow on American soil since 9/11. But every expert and every American knows that the peace won’t last, and the “war” isn’t “won.”

In America, we believe in the ideal of “growth in office.” It’s one way we try to reconcile our conflicting theories of legitimate authority: the raucousness of pure democracy (no one’s above anyone else; only vox pop matters) and the Platonic republicanism the Founders cherished (leaders are special, born or bred). In America the people choose more wisely than they know, the theory goes.

When George W. Bush stood on the pile of rubble in New York City, many of us thought — or hoped — that we were witnessing a man growing into leadership right before our eyes. And for a while it seemed that way. After all, earlier in his life he had exhibited the ability to grow and change, jettisoning the drinking life, taking seriously the political heritage that the Bush name bestowed upon him.

But the personal pattern has not become the political one, at least not so far. Politically, philosophically, operationally, he is the same man today he was on Sept. 10, 2001. He made one of the biggest calls any president has ever made: the decision to take us to war in Iraq. Americans have concluded that it was the wrong call, not because we haven’t built a democracy there, but because the blood and treasure spent have not demonstrably made us safer here.

Consistency in a violently changing world can be a good thing. Voters have concluded that it is not.

The way things now appear, the Democrats have a good shot at taking back at least one chamber of Congress, perhaps both — if for no other reason than that the president and the Republicans in Congress are so sulfurously unpopular. But Democrats should be careful what they wish for. Perhaps they’ll win the political equivalent of “American Idol.” But will they have real leaders to accept the award?