By Douglas Burns
Politics is like driving: Don’t give up the wheel
One of the questions those of us covering politics frequently wrestle with is this: Why do politicians place their careers in the hands of advisors who often give poor counsel out of self-interest or hubris or plain ignorance?
It’s dangerous giving up the wheel. But it happens a lot.
Pols hear the campaign gurus mumbo jumbo-ing in their ears, and what they watch themselves saying on the news that night — or on a YouTube post — sounds nothing like them. They’re not themselves, but rather vessels.
I’ve thought about this a good deal in the last few days as we’ve watched President Obama get off message — being drawn into a firestorm over a proposed mosque at Ground Zero in New York City, when he should be using August’s last dog days to focus intensely on job creation. Remember, this all started with a prepared speech, one read from a teleprompter, and presumably written and vetted by his message geniuses.
“Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances,” Obama said in the Friday speech recognizing the start of the Muslim holiday Ramadan.
I’ve watched other politicians veer off course because of their PR team’s missteps before.
On Saturday afternoon, I had an experience that placed this dynamic in perspective for me.
I was with a friend in the suburban maze outside of Kansas City, on my way from a golf course for a few quick errands before going to the Royals-Yankees game. I’m driving. He’s giving directions. Go left at the Bed, Bath & Beyond. Quick, turn right here at the Costco. No, no, cut over there just past the Walgreens. Being co-piloted through suburban hell is hell.
As we weaved through one soul-less block of commercial conformity after another, I found myself listening to my friend, turning when he said, “turn,” switching lanes as if but a dog responding to Pavlov. At some point in all of this, I stopped thinking. I had transformed into nothing more than a voice-activated pedal pusher and turner of the wheel. I don’t know how it happened.
Soon, of course, we were lost in an office-park zone on a one-way street, approaching an intersection with three options — left, right and middle. I was heading for the right when my friend said, “Go straight, down the middle.”
So I did exactly what he said. I went straight — right down the middle and right through a red light, catching my dangerous error as it started and quickly jerking my head left and then right to see if we were going to be broadsided. Alas, I was damned lucky. We were in a largely deserted commercial office complex on a weekend with not a soul to be seen and no cars within blocks. I ran the red light with no consequences.
But it troubled me. Weighed on me. I clearly saw the red light, and at age 40, I’ve stopped for thousands of them before. But I had forfeited the wheel to my passenger, allowed his words to override my experience, common sense and even the very rule of law. I can’t explain how this unfolded. It just did.
Had something happened, had we been hit by an oncoming car, the incident, of course, would have been my fault. Any injuries or worse would have been fully affixed to my conscience.
I’ve parsed this episode over the last 24 hours, going at it from different angles. When you think about it, our most important responsibility as citizens of the United States is not at the voting booth. It comes when we are driving. That’s when we pose the most risk to the lives and safety of others. It’s in that capacity, more than others, in which we cannot take back mistakes.
Once every three to five years, it seems, I catch myself doing something dreadfully stupid while driving, like not picking up on someone in my blind spot until the very last second. It’s humbling. I’ve had an accident-free driving life (knock on wood) but not an error-free one. No honest person can claim to have never made honest mistakes behind the wheel.
In the future, no matter how lost I am, I will never surrender the wheel again or backseat my own instincts and control.
For if I do, I could find myself in the middle of an accident, with my hands gripping the wheel, agonizing over an error that in the eyes of all is 100 percent mine.
Too many politicians today are similarly afflicted. So take some advice from this soul spared by fortune’s hand from tragedy and guilt: Don’t close your ears to advice and counsel, but never forget who is ultimately behind the wheel.CV
Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.