Naked Bungee Jumping
Copyright © by Len Holman, 7/23/11
There are things which seem easy to do, or at least eminently doable—until you get down to actually doing them, and then you realize that the thing you thought was within easy accessibility actually was immensely complicated, dangerous, and not for you at all. Like naked bungee jumping. We’ve all seen videos of people doing it, and we’ve heard the yelling and moaning—and afterwards, the effects of all that adrenaline pumping through the participants, their smiles of exhilaration, their joy at the conquest of their fears. So you tell everyone you’re going to do it, that it’s not that big a deal, that the fear and complications are all in your mind—because in real life, it’s a piece of cake. So there you are standing on the rail of the bridge, clothes off, bungee cord around your ankles, and the cool updraft from the river far below giving you very big goose bumps—and suddenly you realize you can’t do it, that you are naked, exposed to everyone’s view (including that tattoo you got when you were drunk and young), and that you could die. It’s then you realize that there is no “on the job training” for this. You have to do it to get any experience doing it.
So it is with being President of the United States. It is a truism that someone will say that we need an experienced leader, like Mitt Romney, or a veteran state leader, like Sarah Palin or the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who have had their feet in the fire. This line of rhetoric didn’t work so well for Hillary Clinton in the last election. Apparently the voters decided 2 things: being the wife of a President is not on the job training. And the second thing was more instinctive. Like naked bungee jumping, NO ONE has the requisite experience to be the President. NO ONE. It’s a job that everyone who becomes President learns while doing. No human experience can prepare anyone for this most difficult, complicated, dirty, surprising, tumultuous job. If a potential candidate has been the head of a multi-million dollar corporation which makes bikes, all kinds of bikes—for racing and off-roading and the X-Games, and various specialty bikes and this corporation sells them all over the world, this doesn’t have very much to do with being the President when Israel decides to bomb Iran or when floods hit every state on the Missouri river or when a bomb goes off on a subway in New York—or a million other things that can, and often do, happen. Let’s go back to those bikes. Suppose you have read every book, article, web page, journal, and memoir ever printed about riding bicycles—millions of pages. After many years of tireless research, will you, the CEO of the world’s largest manufacturer of bikes, know how to ride a bike? If you finally get on a real bike, won’t you fall over several times, no matter how much theory you know? You will, because knowing how to ride a bike requires actually getting ON the bike and working out the pedaling, the balance, the turning, and all the rest of the behaviors and mind-states it takes to get down the street without getting a severe case of road rash.
Several Republican contenders for their party’s nomination have harped on Obama’s “on the job training” and thus his lack of skill in handling the various crises which have come roaring upon us like a Japanese tsunami overwhelming a nuclear facility. This is a specious argument, since the Arab Spring, the Japan disaster, the Haiti quake, the exploding housing market, the Eurozone debt tremors, massive flooding and wildfires here, the job market imploding, and banks flush with cash but unwilling to lend it—all would have been impossible to prepare for. Imagine a class for future Presidents, where the instructor says something like, “OK, now suppose a giant earthquake and the resulting tsunami decimates a Japanese nuclear site. What would you do? I need a 500-word essay by the end of this class. Pencils up—and begin.” Romney touts his time as governor, and his business acumen, and I’m sure Perry will do likewise, but running a state and running a company is to being President as (to use an analogy of Mark Twain’s) lightning is to a lightning bug. Ain’t nearly the same. Presidents don’t get that gray hair because they agonize over choosing a line to the cup on the ninth hole. They get it because every day there is some God-awful catastrophe, some incredibly unexpected political disaster, or some middle-of-the-night call to get down to the War Room—something. The Presidency of the United States is an empirical exercise, though it is always treated by a wannabe president as a rationalistic one. The would-be President speaks and acts as if only HIS/HER experience is the key to superhero leadership of America, even though the thinking you can and the showing you can are as far apart as the moon is from mooning your drunken friends in Tijuana. One can think he or she knows how to swim because she’s had a glass of water, but then there’s the physical act of getting into the pool.
If there were a school for future Presidents, what would be taught? Who would teach it and for how long? Would the curriculum involve more than throwing someone out of a plane, and THEN throwing the parachute after them? The human mind is a tricky, slippery, falsifying and misleading instrument. It is arrogant and pretends it knows what it does not. When someone says they know they can be a better President than the one we have, they may actually believe it’s true. They may have read the Constitution (possible) and the Declaration of Independence (maybe the preamble), and the Federalist Papers (unlikely), and think they know about being President, but do they know how to be one in a world which goes insane from time to time? Do they know HOW, not just do they know WHAT?
Being CEO of Wal-Mart is tough enough, what with the wage discrimination lawsuits and the trekking up to the Supreme Court every month to defend your company and plugging the various small leaks a Gilded age company accrues over time. How much tougher is it to be the CEDO of a major institution which has more outlets than MacDonald’s and more interests and less attention span than a speed freak? By comparison, naked bungee jumping is easy to do and easy to know about. But it’s not in the Constitution, and cannot be experienced except by doing it. When the river below rushes up to your horrified gaze, the wind maximizes your goosebumps, you feel the cord sliding off your ankles, and you’re sure that your head is going to hit a big rock and kill you before you bounce back—if you bounce back, THEN you’ll know what being the President of this country feels like. Only then.
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