Acton Commentary

Regaining a Sense of Taste in Political Leadership


When watching the Food Network on television, the viewer focuses on a number of things.  What technique does the celebrity chef use in dicing an onion?  How is her hair highlighted?  What kind of appliances has the network placed in the kitchen set? How does the food look?  The attention is everywhere except on how the food will taste because that part of the process is too difficult to convey through a glass screen.  A celebrity cooking program could be made in such a way that the viewer would be fully entertained and ready for another episode even if the dish were an absolute failure.  Audiences lock in on everything other than the actual eating because they are culinary voyeurs.

American politics resembles cooking on television because our palate has been out of practice.  We’ve eaten a relatively unseasoned mash of policy for a long time with little variation based on the chef.  With the taste of the food varying so little, we have focused more on the politician as a celebrity.  How does the prospective office holder look? What obstacles has the candidate overcome in childhood?  Who makes for the best profile in People Magazine?  David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, memorably swooned at the sight of President Obama’s “perfectly creased” pant leg.  The presentation has taken precedence over the taste.

But things are changing.  The unseasoned mash is getting a bit spicier (maybe enough to cause a little health care related heartburn?) and the sheer amount of it threatens the ability of even a championship eater to digest.  And the bill at the end of the meal, by the way, is starting to look intimidating even for those carrying the fancy black American Express cards.  With the change, the focus of the diners will also move.  They will devote less attention to the image and more to what exactly it is they are putting into their mouths. 

The test case is in New Jersey.  Chris Christie, part Sicilian and part Irish, is no threat to cause anyone palpitations over the perfect cut of his big and tall size suit.  But he has managed to make major changes to budget policy in a reliably liberal state.  The Garden State, with taxes high and coffers empty much like the Roman Empire at the end of its existence, turned to the no-nonsense prosecutor.  He has proved to be a serious man by successfully taking on public unions and attacking budget liabilities.  The type of leadership he has provided has been little valued during the last 20 years, but it is coming back in vogue.  Anyone can spend money and make vague promises about how to pay the promissory notes.  It takes a leader who recognizes the moral responsibilities of governance to work through the ledger and decide where cuts must be made. 

Debt-wise, we are now in a situation similar to the one America faced at the halfway point of the 20th century.  We’d fought a hard, expensive war against the Nazis and the Japanese empire and needed to help rebuild Europe to forestall the victory of aggressive totalitarianism from the Soviets.  The scandal is that we’ve reached a similar ratio of debt to GDP without anything approaching the kind of civilizational crises we battled through earlier.  Western nations at that time chose able leaders to rebuild the world.  Winston Churchill.  Konrad Adenauer.  Dwight Eisenhower.  They had to be good, wise, and credible.  Not only were they bringing the west out of the ashes, they were facing Stalin and Mao. 

As good as those leaders were, they had an advantage we don’t have.  Their people had been on rations for years and were ready to consume.  Our citizenry, in contrast, has matched the habits of our government.  But things have changed.  The people have become wiser in the wake of financial meltdown in the real estate markets and on Wall Street.  We are loaded with debt, but are now looking to save.  As the government rolls out increasingly shocking deficits, we react by salting away more money against the possibility of dark days.  Profligate spending by Washington undermines the confidence needed to fuel expansion.  We realize that our political leaders are taking us on the path of greater spending accompanied by more debt service and higher taxes.  The bill is going to come due and we know it.  Like a wife hiding funds from an unreliable husband with grandiose visions and a record of failure (the War on Poverty), we are stewarding our resources and hoping for more responsibility. 

Aristotle said the best judges of whether a chef has succeeded in his craft are the diners rather than his fellow chefs.  No matter how much other politicians may laud their peers who effortlessly spend other people’s money without worrying about tomorrow, the citizens (the diners) grow restless.  We need leaders, like Chris Christie, who want no better legacy than to have applied the brakes on a runaway locomotive and who have the intestinal fortitude for the task.

Hunter Baker is the associate dean of arts and sciences at Union University and the author of The End of Secularism