Sunday, June 13, 2010

Clown or True Leader?

During her recent visit to Ecuador, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a comment about relations between Venezuela and the United States. In response, Hugo Chavez sang a song about, essentially, how he doesn’t care and about how much he dislikes Mrs. Clinton. The majority of Venezuelans applaud such behavior; they respect and admire Mr. Chavez as a true Venezuelan leader. But outside of the country, many in the international community view him as a clown, like a kind of court jester. And I wonder, how can you take someone with an unbridled tongue and who displays such simplicity, even to the point of vulgarity, seriously as the president of a nation?

Venezuelans identify with Mr. Chavez. They speak the same language; he shares their mannerisms and style of talk. I seriously doubt that a candidate for president with the silver tongue of a Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gabriel García Márquez, or Mario Vargas Llosa could be elected president of Venezuela. But this clownish, almost laughable behavior is not only found in Venezuela. Russia had it in Boris Yeltsin, Italy has it in Silvio Berlusconi, and the United States had it in George W. Bush. I think we will see more unpresidential behavior from the leaders of many other countries. I tend to agree with those in the diplomatic community who I’ve heard admit that Mr. Chavez has reasonable and understandable complaints against the United States. The problem, however, is the way he expresses it: his folkloric antics are appalling, abrasive, low, common, and vulgar. The French language may no longer be the language of diplomacy, but the art of diplomacy itself has not essentially changed. Protocol, etiquette, discretion, and propriety are expected today just as they have always been.

However, it seems that some leaders care more about appealing to or connecting with the people than about these diplomatic manners or about appropriate presidential behavior. And after all, if you want to make a point, then you must speak the language of the people. This is how one sometimes conducts business, markets a product, and even plays politics. Popular cultural behavior seems to carry more weight than propriety or good manners. Imagine the Queen or England or the King of Spain campaigning for public office. I doubt they would be elected. And Mr. Chavez not only commands respect, he encourages the sort of militancy that was a hallmark of Soviet Russia and that one sees today in North Korea. He is no fool. He knows how to keep his political approval high, how to make people laugh and create distractions. It’s like bread and circuses in the times of the Roman Empire.

Mr. Chavez created his Bolivarian Revolution, which, by the way, has little to do with Bolivar (the South American liberator). Nonetheless, he put this idea into the minds of his people and has even convinced other countries to follow him. And I have to say, whether he is good or bad, he is certainly an effective leader. I invite you to try to convince, say, a hundred people to follow you or to do what you want them to do. That requires tenacity and respect.

But just remember that one can speak the language of the people, while remaining respectable--presidential, if you wish--and one can be simple without being vulgar.

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