Rep. Michele Bachmann wins the night

Do we Americans value celebrity over wisdom?  What are the long term consequences if we do? Photo: Associated Press

LONGMONT, Colo. — Representative Michele Bachmann’s “Tea Party” rebuttal of President Obama’s State of the Union speech was the most intriguing speech of Tuesday night, including the President’s and Representative Paul Ryan’s official GOP response. 

The Minnesota congresswoman outperformed the night’s other featured speakers regardless of the trio’s content or delivery. She won the night simply by claiming a place on the national stage alongside the President and the GOP’s official spokesman. Her actions are the latest example of American’s growing disdain for experience and wisdom.

Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) offered the GOP response to the State of the Union Address (Photo: Associated Press)

Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) offered the GOP response to the State of the Union Address (Photo: Associated Press)

Rep. Bachmann is the Kim Kardashian of American politics. She has accomplished little more than being a celebrity. Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, on the other hand, has offered up more meaty policy ideas than almost any current politician. His Road Map for America’s Future is a courageous contribution to the public dialogue whether one agrees or disagrees with his ideas.

There is little place for meaty ideas in modern American politics. Cable news producers loathe diving too far beneath the surface and reward politicians willing to play the game.  Thus, the celebrity Bachmann is able to claim a share of the limelight on par with the hardcore policy wonk Ryan. 

As a modern point of reference, my last check of Google trends listed Michele Bachmann in the top twenty. Paul Ryan’s name was absent.

Twenty-five years ago I spent 100 hours per week traveling the campaign trail with Kansas gubernatorial candidate (and eventually governor) Mike Hayden. He spent fourteen years in the Kansas Legislature, his last four as House Speaker. One of his regular riffs on the stump focused on his years of service, working his way through the ranks of the legislature.

“When I first arrived at the legislature, I got some good advice from a veteran colleague,” he would begin. “He (Hayden’s legislative colleague) pointed to a seat in the back row of the chamber and said, ‘Sit down, shut up and try to learn something.’” 

Governor Hayden often had to shout out the last line of the story over the claps and laughter of his approving audiences, “That’s exactly what I did.” A line that sometimes elicited cheers.

There was a time just a generation ago that Americans, perhaps especially conservatives, valued the process of “paying one’s dues” and “working one’s way through the ranks.”  People believed that starting at the bottom, doing grunt work, staying out of the limelight and learning from those with more experience was the best way to develop the knowledge, skills and wisdom to make good decisions and to be a leader.

For Governor Hayden, his story of working his way from “a seat in the back row” to the Speaker’s chair resonated deeply on the campaign trail and won him admirers as well as votes.

Rep. Michele Bachmann has served in Congress for just over four years. She was elected to her third term this past November. In her short years of service, Rep. Bachmann has been a talking head fixture on cable news shows fitting perfectly into the provocative formats preferred by television producers. She appears to relish her role in the hyper-partisan stage play.

Rep. Bachmann has no story of paying dues or legislative accomplishment to tell.  But, the story of her brash rise to stardom is the one that captures attention today.

Representative Paul Ryan's (R-Wis) gave the Republican response to the State of the Union Address (Photo: Associated Press)

Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis) gave the Republican response to the State of the Union Address (Photo: Associated Press)

Experience? Who needs it? In fact, it’s a minus in modern politics. One could argue that modern Americans value celebrity far more than wisdom.

Some states, like Colorado, have institutionalized inexperience into their respective state constitutions.  Colorado passed a constitutional amendment in 1992 that limits legislative terms to eight years. Twenty years later there is little institutional memory in the state house.

Colorado, like many states, is facing unprecedented budget challenges. The legislature must find ways to resolve structural deficits (the costs of politically popular public services exceed the revenues to pay for these services). This work is not for the feint of heart or for a novice. Yet, novices are exactly who is making decisions for the state.

Legislative leadership positions were once reserved for those with a decade or more experience. Colorado’s two legislative leaders – Senate President Brandon Shaffer (D) and House Speaker Frank McNulty (R) – have a combined experience of ten years.  Members of the state legislature’s Joint Budget Committee (the six legislators charged with managing the state’s budget) have a combined experience of less than five years as fiscal managers.

I do not question the commitment of Colorado’s legislators to do what they believe is best for the state. The state leaders I know are thoughtful and work hard. But, is it fair to expect people with so little experience to be prepared to make some of the toughest decisions we’ve faced in several generations?

Americans are relearning many hard lessons today because the institutional memory of the Greatest Generation is all but gone. It is great to add new people and new ideas to any organization, including our legislative bodies.

But do we really want to throw out wisdom altogether? And, do we really want celebrity to be the top qualification of our leaders?

*     *     *

John Creighton writes on community life and public leadership at johncr8on.com. He can be found on Twitter @johncr8on and on Facebook. Read more of John’s work in Dispatches From The Heartland at the Communities at the Washington Times. 


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John Creighton

John is a student of community life and public leadership. He does research, writes, speaks and advises public leaders on strategies to activate citizens to take action.

John's professional journey includes twenty years work with public-oriented organizations including the U.S. Bureau of Primary Health Care, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Kettering and C.S. Mott Foundations, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Demos Public Works Project and many Pulitzer prize-winning newspapers.  John is the former director and senior fellow with The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.  As founder of Conocer, John designed a peer-to-peer learning network for forty-plus primary health care associations around the country.  He began his career working on the staff of two Kansas gubernatorial campaigns.

John is author or more than forty reports and articles. He has been a keynote speaker for groups ranging from the Western Governors Association, Nature Conservancy, National Association of Secretaries of State, Mid America Press Institute, Greater Midwest Association of Primary Health Care Centers, and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

One of John's joys is the opportunity to interview Americans from all walks of life.  He has had the privilege to sit down with such diverse groups - in such diverse places - as executives in the World Trade Center; community health care workers in South Carolina; AME church members in Atlanta; ranchers in North and South Dakota; union members in Flint, MI; casino workers in Las Vegas; newspaper reporters in Baltimore; media pioneers in California, and countless others in 42 states.

John grew up in a small town on the Great Plains where he learned community is not a concept but a rewarding, and practical, way of life.  John is a graduate of the University of Kansas and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.  He and his wife Joni are raising three children in Longmont, Colorado where John serves on the school board.

Contact John Creighton

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