"Send every god and king. Loss of control and solidarity impeached, embrace eternal discipline."
We view government far too much through the lens of the the Great Man Theory of history.
This week’s soundtrack: Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean - “With Every Wrist Outstretched”
Work has been pretty busy for me lately, so I haven’t been able to really dig into the story about Kevin McCarthy handing over Jan. 6 footage to Tucker Carlson’s team. My snap reaction was “is that legal?” and plan on looking into it further, but needless to say…it’s not good. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about great men of history.
One of the books that kickstarted my leaning into middle age white guy-dom and reading history books was Patrick Wyman’s The Verge. Ironically, the book is divided into chapters examining various figures – small and, mostly, big – at the turn of the 15th century and their effects on the world. I know Wyman turned a couple of my friends onto his work – not to sound too Indie Rock Pete on this, but I’ve loved Wyman since he started his podcast – with a Defector post he wrote about Christopher Columbus (emphasis below is mine).
The version of Columbus we’re familiar with is a character in a very particular kind of story that people have told about that specific slice of the past. It’s a story that eventually leads to European colonial domination of the New World and global empires in the 19th and 20th centuries—which a priori must have been a good thing, because those things produced the world in which schoolkids learn about Christopher Columbus. In a version of history reverse-engineered to justify and celebrate the present, Columbus can only have been a hero, a singular and unique character whose actions drove the story to where it always needed to go. If that heroic Columbus didn’t exist—and again he very definitely didn’t—then he must be invented in order to play the role in which he’s cast.
I’ve been thinking about this in my own work lately because last week, just by stroke of luck and scheduling, we did two GovExec Daily episodes that had me thinking about archetypes and the Great Man of History theory that seems to be a crutch onto which people lean.
The first show was with my former boss Tom Shoop. He wrote a post for us recently about government czars and the history of that unofficial role in the executive branch. He didn’t say this overtly (either on the mic or in his piece), but I will: The czar role – often in the way of some “coordinator” title – is both often very necessary and almost always a political inverse Great Man of History move by presidents. It is a way to foist a problem onto one person as a meat shield for a government that isn’t solving a problem and it’s a way to focus the problem onto one or another person, in some small way.
I’m not going to act like I’m immune from this, as my first thought when Ron Klain was named to be Biden’s White House Chief of Staff was “oh, yeah, he was the Ebola czar during Obama, so he’ll be good for the COVID-19 response.” This thought did not take into account the *whole of government failures* of the previous year nor did it give enough credit to the good work done by the whole of the CDC during the Ebola crisis. I simply saw someone competent and thought “maybe he will fix it!”
Klain, of course, did not fix it.
Of course, this manifests more seriously in the things I talked about last week regarding the “idea” people, the need for hiring and elected officials. Authoritarianism and political cults of personality rely on phrases like “I alone can fix it”; Donald Trump has famously made use of similar phrasing in his political career. People like to hang their fortunes onto a great man – it’s almost always a man, though Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s “I have a plan for that” deal certainly enraptured a lot of people – and hope that they will be the deus ex machina of whatever problems exist.
But, it’s not always something that the Great Men take upon themselves, as Columbus (or Trump or Biden and on and on) did. Sometimes, it’s awkwardly thrust upon lifetime civil servants who just kinda want to do their job within their roles. Pre-COVID-19, the big anti-Trump hope was thrust upon Robert Mueller in his special counsel role, despite Mueller being one of the lower-key Joe Friday motherfuckers in his time in government. The role of the special counsel is not one that could do the things that the #resistance Twitter brigade preferred, but nonetheless, the crazier of the blue wave Twitter crowd wanted Mueller to bring Trump out of the White House in handcuffs.
(D.C. is a terrible place for this stuff. I played against a team in one of my softball leagues called “Comey’s Homies.” Can you imagine seeing James Comey as anything other than a giant nerd?)
Post-Mueller, of course, that role went to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was a guest on GovExec Daily for the third time this past week. Fauci retired from government earlier this year, but he was at NIH for 50+ years as part of truly great work in HIV/AIDS, Ebola and other epidemiology. He’s been at the forefront of infectious diseases, mostly in the research side of things, for longer than I’ve been alive.
He’s also just one guy. So, when he got thrust into the spotlight during our ~heroes and villains~ era, he became a lighting rod. In an earlier appearance on our show, he mostly seemed OK with the role the public had forced him into, but he’s a scientist and a fairly low-key guy. During the Trump term, the “Fauci is my Christ”-type bullshit really downplayed the political forces at play – particularly the interlocking systems of federal, local and state health systems and the politics within – and it also made Fauci a target for the inverse. Like Klain, Fauci being more trusted and elevated during the Biden administration did not fix COVID-19. This is not Fauci’s fault, of course, as he didn’t ask for any of this. He isn’t the sexiest man alive, nor was he someone deserving of the death threats he received (and receives)
Fauci is a decorated public servant and certainly someone to be admired, but he’s not Superman. He’s not perfect and he couldn’t “fix” COVID-19 just as Chris Christie couldn’t fix the opioid crisis when he was opioid czar. It’s too facile and yet, it’s kind of how we operate.
The conversation with Fauci was also with Max Stier, as the two of them wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post recently about making government younger. This is a topic we cover a lot on the show and will continue to cover because there are a ton of factors keeping it from happening. Fauci, to his credit, seems to want to inspire young scientists to go into public service instead of working for, like, big pharma, but that’s gonna be exceptionally hard, as we covered with Jeff Neal on our show.
Otherwise, Fauci was a perfectly nice man, but it is definitely a difference to talk to a career federal employee against current and former elected officials. Fauci is about as famous as Martin O’Malley, but not even 1/1000 as charming and he’s certainly not trying to be as charming as other electeds (I remember talking to former Rep. Tim Roemer about the 9/11 commission, of which he was a part, and he was definitely trying to pile on the charm). Some of it, I’m sure, is the stress of the last few years and no one really looks forward to media interviews with people like me, but it’s striking nonetheless.
Lulu has her annual physical coming up this week. Last time she was at the vet, she fell off the table and was no worse for the wear (she’s tough).
A Recommendation: Spring Training Baseball
Baseball is my favorite sport. It’s the sport (and its derivatives like softball, tee ball and wiffle ball) that I’ve played the most and it’s certainly the one I’ve consumed the most on TV, radio, etc. But, my baseball experience is fairly slight when it comes to experiencing the various types of baseball, in that I’ve never been to a postseason MLB game – I’ve been to a Stanley Cup Final, NFL playoff games and multiple Winter Classics – nor have I been to Spring Training. I write this at my desk in Washington, D.C., so 2023 is yet another year in which I’ve not traveled to Arizona to see my beloved (and hated) Chicago White Sox play in exhibition games. Someday I will, but not this year.
So, this weekend, I watched two Chicago White Sox exhibition games on MLB.tv. The baseball was awful, as everyone was working on getting into shape instead of trying to win. I won’t regale you with my thoughts on the rule changes, but instead say that baseball’s quotidian nature is such that it’s decidedly comfortable. The NFL is an event-based product; each week is a Very Big Deal. Baseball is something on which I can rely and it is steady. Most nights during the summer, I can flip on the Sox and hear my favorite broadcast team (and see my favorite team disappoint me). It’s home. Baseball – as the famed Field of Dreams monologue says – has marked the time, sure, but it’s also deeply comfortable like a pair of pajama pants. I didn’t know how much I missed it.