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Life Boat Thinking

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Media coverage of the election primaries has taken on vivid similarities to sports broadcasts. What inning are we in, what is going on in the dugout and who is on first right now? If you gave the pundits and political consultants slightly different words for their scripts, you could easily substitute the Super Bowl, U.S. Open or “March Madness” for the current political coverage.


But since I am a very tepid fan of the most widely broadcast sports, the grinding ritual that primaries have become speaks to me in a different way. The ads, the rhetoric, the fervent analysis and the polls say to me that we are in tough shape right now and are really on a quest for a lifeboat with a good captain.


Back in the 1940s during a time of war, confusion and necessary sacrifice, the great film director Alfred Hitchcock adapted a John Steinbeck story titled “Lifeboat” into one of his most legendary movies. An ocean liner is torpedoed by a German submarine and seven disparate survivors are left adrift in a cramped lifeboat. That is a great recipe for all kinds of disagreements and tensions, but waits. The final survivor taken into the boat is one of the Nazi crewmembers who torpedoed their ship and he happens to be the only person in the boat with any navigational skills! Everyone in the boat has to make moral and tactical decisions which bring out the best and worst in each of them. You’ll love one of the movie’s promotion lines;” Who goes Primitive first...A man...Or a woman...adrift in an open boat?” Does any of that seem similar to where we are as a nation right now?


The reason we wind up in a lifeboat is because something usually safe and reliable has been broken or gone horribly wrong. Perhaps the captain and crew have made an awful mistake that has been compounded by a major shot of bad judgment. Many things that affect business and therefore life in America are broken, breaking or badly in need of repair right now. The United States dollar has been devalued to the point of suspicion and mistrust on the part of our trading partners. Those nice folks in the oil rich countries are now telling us to suck on this while charging $100 per barrel. We spend more per capita on sickness care but we are among the fattest, sickest people in the world. However, the candidates I’ve heard from the two main political parties are only talking about how to spend taxpayer’s money and are mute on how we might repair, upgrade and move forward as an industrial power. They seem to be timid, poll driven speech makers who are telling us what is easy and popular instead of the unvarnished (painful) truth and I happen to think there is no upside in avoiding the facts.


In a lifeboat, I doubt whether ½ price sales, private schools, sports scores and big screen TV sets have much real value. Whether those sodden souls had a $million or a dime probably didn’t matter very much. To get beyond destructive disagreements, somebody had to remind those in the boat that without focusing on shared goals and a willingness to work and sacrifice together, they were all doomed. Whenever I speak with Americans who were adults during and after WW II, they have clear memories of a sense of togetherness in the struggle. Presidents and media laid out the agenda and the costs in dollars and personal sacrifices. Certainly there was an ample amount of fact fudging and our own brand of propaganda but the nation also heard about why there were hard choices that had to be made.


So, with eight months to go before the election I find myself fighting that sinking feeling by wishing for a candidate with the character and skills of good lifeboat captain. It may be self flattery but I think I’m mature enough to be told about what we really must do to keep America in the game as a world class home for business and the vibrant society that results from abundant and well run enterprises. I already know it won’t be easy so I’d love a few politicians who can say no to proliferating money leeching programs and entitlements. As a fundamental capitalist, I’d say we can use more CEOs who are principled enough to turn away from Wall Street success as their only holy grail. Are we really a people whom Jack Nicholson’s character refers to in “A Few Good Men” when he says “You can’t handle the truth?”


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