BTC: The Leader v. The Salesman

Back, for a moment, to David Foster Wallace’s take on John McCain.

Near the end of that little book Foster Wallace arrives at his definitive division of political leadership—laying out a distinction between “leaders” and “salesmen.”

“A real leader,” he writes, “isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with ‘inspire’ being used here in a serious and non-cliche way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think we are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own … In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own…

“There is a difference,” he continues later, “between a great leader and a great salesman. There are similarities, of course. A great salesman is usually charismatic and likable, and he can often get us to do things (buy things, agree to things that we might not go for on our own, and to feel good about it. Plus a lot of salesmen are basically decent people with plenty about them to admire. But even a truly great salesman isn’t a leader. This is because a salesman’s ultimate, overriding motivation is self-interest—if you buy what he’s selling, the salesman profits. So even though the salesman may have a very powerful, charismatic, admirable personality, and might even persuade you that buying is in your interests (and it really might be)—still, a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself.”

This leads to a consideration of whether John McCain (circa 2000) could quite literally sell himself as a real leader, without, in the process, becoming a salesman. (see also, Barack Obama circa 2008).

But, for the moment, let’s consider something else. Namely, when was the last time Canada had a real leader?

By Foster Wallace’s somewhat predictable measure, America’s last real leader was John F. Kennedy. Among JFK’s predecessors and peers, Foster Wallace counts Lincoln, Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Charles de Gaulle, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Marshall (George? Thurgood?) and Eisenhower. He dismisses Reagan as a salesman particularly adept at convincing you of his own leadership. (Writing before the 2000 election, Foster Wallace is obviously in no position to celebrate the bold vision of George W. Bush’s call to keep shopping in the days after 9/11.)

Now, obviously, it is difficult to have this discussion without getting into the differences of partisanship and personal opinion. But let’s at least pretend to get into this objectively.

Our present Prime Minister is almost certainly a salesman. There is perhaps a debate to be had there, but I suspect even the man himself would admit his basic salesmanship—committed to a specific and personal bill of goods. Read his speeches. Listen to him in the House. This is not a man particularly keen on inspiring people. (And there is, quite possibly, nothing wrong with that. Depending, of course, on the quality of the goods for sale.)

Paul Martin wanted to be a leader, and often made desperate attempt at talking like one, but never quite figured out what he wanted to inspire people to do. He was a directionless leader, if such a thing is possible. Chretien was a salesman, disarming in his syntax. As was Mulroney, obvious to a fault. At their best they made people feel nice about the nation and its notion, but such stuff never amounted to more than surface-level pride. We’ll disqualify Campbell, Turner and Clark as obviously neither particularly skilled at leadership nor salesmanship. 

Which brings us to Trudeau. He is, for sure, the most obvious candidate. Setting aside the standard moaning from right and left on his various misdeeds (creating the National Energy Program, invoking the War Measures Act, stifling the career of Robert Stanfield), it’s objectively impossible to deny the effect he had on a great number of people, especially young people who might not otherwise have cared about the political process. You can, perhaps, debate whether he what he inspired amounted to greatness. But there was an appeal to greatness. A rare call that was received with rare response. (Trudeau, of course, remains the only Prime Minister with a trademarked mania to his name.)

A case can be made for Pearson (including a rhetorical slapping of the Foster Wallace-approved de Gaulle), but maybe much of his legacy (health care, the flag, avoiding Vietnam, winning the Nobel) is elevated by hindsight. Mackenzie King led the country to war, but “conscription if necessary, but necessarily conscription” are hardly the words of stirring, resolute and bold leadership. (If there’s a war-time leader to be lauded maybe it’s Robert Borden.) And with all due respect to Sir Mackenzie Bowell and his awe-inspiring facial hair, only two others seem likely candidates for the leadership canon—John A. Macdonald and Wilfred Laurier. The first for possessing whatever it took to be first, the latter for defining much of what was to come.

So that’s three, maybe four, real leaders in 141 years of history. And, to repeat a point Foster Wallace makes about JFK, it’s been decades since anyone had chance to vote for one, those under the age of 35 having no memory of anything but salesman winning the highest office. (The explanation for voter apathy is always the most obvious.)

Why is this? What does it mean? And what does it matter? Not sure, really. Canadians may tend toward more pragmatic political leaders (when we talk about our former leaders, we tend to talk about their policy achievements, most of those having to do with difficult-to-outright-despise social programs). We may prefer our politicians go about their business quietly and inoffensively without demanding too much of our attention. Or we may lack the self-seriousness necessary to justify and provoke a leader bent on inspirational profundity. (Barack Obama’s lofty rhetoric, for instance, might seem a bit odd if he weren’t aiming to become the most powerful man in the world. Indeed, even in contesting that position, he’s criticized for seeming elitist.)

All of that may be true, if not terribly flattering. But then the public’s antipathy toward the present party leaders is well-noted and regularly agonized over. And it’s rather depressing to think the country would reject a candidate who loudly and smartly offered something better. So let’s not think that. Optimistically speaking, perhaps we’d welcome a real leader, but don’t see one presently (though, to complete the circle, we may lack such a leader because we generally fail to demand one).

The good news, perhaps, is this: on average, we’re getting a real leader every 35 years or so. In other words, we’re due.