Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The star is not the leader - Kissinger vs. Bryant

In the summer of 1974, Gerald Ford was not necessarily devoid of ego. He was a graduate of Yale Law School. He had continuously been re-elected to a seat in the House of Representatives, and had risen through the ranks to become the chief Republican in the House of Representatives. And in the previous year, he had been confirmed as Vice President of the United States - not the Speaker of the House job that he wanted, but an honor nevertheless.

But even the most confident person can be thrown by circumstances - and in the summer of 1974, the circumstances were overwhelming. The nation was facing the prospect of impeaching, trying, and convicting the President of the United States. At the time, only one President - Andrew Johnson - had ever been impeached. (The impeachment of Bill Clinton was still decades in the future.) It was becoming increasingly obvious to almost everyone that Gerald Ford was going to become President of the United States.

But the troubles of Richard Nixon, and the loss of his key lieutenants in the wake of the Watergate scandal, had created a power vacuum that needed to be filled. And whenever Gerald Ford did become President, he would have to deal with Henry Kissinger - a man who not only held the dual posts of National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, but also a man who, by tacit agreement between the two political parties, had been endowed with near-Presidential power. Because of the turbulence in the Middle East, Vietnam, and elsewhere, both Republicans and Democrats agreed that our foreign policy should not be adversely affected by Watergate. Thus emerged, in the words of Robert Dallek, the Kissinger Presidency.

So when Gerald Ford privately received the news that Richard Nixon intended to resign from the Presidency, Ford's apparent lack of authority in his first conversation with Kissinger is understandable.

Both Ford and Kissinger realized that the Nixon resignation presented a potential opportunity for enemies of the U.S. to take advantage of any governmental instability, so it was essential that the two be on the same page. During their first conversation, the President-to-be (President-unelect???) said the following to his future National Security Advisor/Secretary of State:

Henry, I need you. The country needs you. I want you to stay. I'll do everything I can to work with you.

It's no secret that Kissinger has a healthy ego of his own, but at this point he said the right thing:

Sir, it is my job to get along with you, and not yours to get along with me.

Kissinger realized that with the accession of a President not engulfed in scandal, the "Kissinger Presidency" had to end. In fact, a little over a year after this conversation, Ford removed Kissinger as his National Security Advisor, leaving him only with the Secretary of State post. While Kissinger certainly continued to wield power in the last year of Ford's presidency, an extraordinary period in foreing policy was over. And whatever one may think of Ford - and opinions of Ford have changed over the years - he certainly exercised the authority of a President, making key decisions and issuing a ton of vetoes.

This deference of a powerful subordinate to a leader is not always exhibited - something that basketball fans in Los Angeles have realized for years. When even former coach Phil Jackson considered Kobe Bryant to be "uncoachable," what hope does a Rudy Tomjanovich, Mike Brown, or Mike d'Antoni have in actually coaching a team? Kobe decides when he will play and (more importantly to a so-called coach) how he will play.

It's easier to get away with this in basketball, where a team only has five players on the floor at any one time. But as the star player ages, a team that is effectively coach-less is less effective.

And since Kobe is contracted to the Lakers for nearly three years, this will not be solved any time soon...unless the Lakers recognize reality and just name Kobe player-coach.

Hmm...wonder if Kissinger can shoot.

If I can add a tangential postscript to this post...earlier in the post I linked to the announcement of the Profile in Courage award given to Gerald Ford. One of the presenters was Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a man who initially opposed President Ford's decision to pardon Richard Nixon. Decades later, Kennedy said complimentary things about Ford, and Ford in turn said complimentary things about Senator Kennedy's brother.

Now a new generation, in a new century, is summoned to complete our unfinished work and to purge our politics of cynicism. "Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before…Our political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment."

So wrote then-Senator John Kennedy in introducing Profiles in Courage. Forty-five years later his concerns are more relevant than ever. If there is distrust out there -and there is - perhaps it is because there is so much partisan jockeying for advantage at the expense of public policy. At times it feels as if American politics consists largely of candidates without ideas, hiring consultants without convictions, to stage campaigns without content. Increasingly the result is elections without voters.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Ford and the Kennedy brothers would certainly agree about that.
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