David Frum: Hopes and Worries for John McCain

Reform, change and transformation are hopes. Obsession with the wrong issues, like campaign finance reform, are worries.
  • Transcript


Question: What are your hopes and worries for Candidate McCain?

David Frum: John McCain offers something very exciting to the Republican Party. That is, he offers the possibility of reform and change and transformation. That's really what his career as a politician has been about.

The downside, the weakness of his candidacy, is that, as fervent as he is about the need for change, the actual content of the things he offers has always been a little thin.

John McCain has brought his greatest reforming energy to issues about which people tend to care very little. And he also has a very weak screen for sorting good ideas from bad. So in campaign finance, for example, he became tremendously infatuated with a series of solutions that almost everyone else who looked at them said, "These solutions are going to make worse all the problems that you say you care about. And if what you're concerned about is a kind of bias of the political system toward the wealthy and powerful, then McCain-Feingold is going to make that problem a lot worse"--as indeed it's done. So I worry about that.

I served very briefly in government, and not in a very important job, but that short experience created in me an even greater respect than I already felt for the importance of executive management, the ability to make things work. Those are very particular human skills and they are not developed by a career in the Senate. Nor is the Senate a good place to become a close student of the consequences, both intended and unintended, of the bright ideas that occur to you.

Question: What defines great leadership?

David Frum: I don't think there is such a thing as leadership in the general sense.

You see all these books on the bookshelves that will say, "Leadership Secrets of Joan of Arc." Now, the kind of leadership that inspired a mob of semi-literate French soldier peasants to fight a foreign invader five hundred years ago, those are not necessarily the same techniques you use to organize the company softball team.

John McCain tries to draw a distinction between leadership and management, but usually what happens when people talk about leadership is they end up describing themselves. All the characteristics that they have, all the good points they have, they say that is the essence of leadership and they set aside all the things they don't have as not important.

To run the U.S. government effectively requires tremendous attention to detail, it requires tremendous follow-through.  The government is a tremendously resistant machine. It is very hard to make it do the things you want it to do. It's never enough to set broad goals and it's never enough to inspire people. You actually have to manage the beast day by day by day. And to make it go in a direction in which it's not already going, that requires not just the exciting quality of the orator or the exciting qualities of the visionary, that requires some of the very daily humdrum qualities of the manager, of the person who checks that the job is being done, follows through, holds people accountable.

Recorded on: May 5 2008