Where are the Great Men and Women of our time?

As we enter into 2008 and a new US presidential election cycle, I am once again struck that the available candidates are all compromises; compromises between our ideals and the political and economic realities that rule the world today.

As we look back on the arc of recent history, we can point to some truly great individuals who managed to crystallize the mood of their era and, like a flame, transform it into something greater. From the French Revolution and Rousseau’s social contract, Napoleon cast modern France and set the stage for many nations around the world.

Unlike Napoleon, who offered equality and efficiency but a near totalitarian government, Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and Franklin wanted a government that could somehow withstand the forces of upheaval that had plagued so many before. They wanted to build a nation which could outlast the lifespan of just one Great Man, for they correctly supposed that Great Men were hard to find.

The three governmental branches and the deference of power to local governments are major strengths of the American Constitution and, really, have enabled the nation to hobble along between its handful of Great Men. In a sense the American system does its best to transform Ordinary Men into Capable Men. Sometimes it has transformed Capable Men into Great Men.

Lincoln was faced with the task of reconciling our ideals (all men are created equal, we the people, etc) with the economics of the day. Slavery was an economic reality that some felt was unavoidable, insurmountable, and even sanctioned by scripture. However, Lincoln realized that a divided nation was vulnerable. Lincoln had the unenviable task of explaining this to the nation, which he did so eloquently and forcefully.

Lincoln was called to tell the nation that which it did not want to hear. Washington and Jefferson did much of the same. Even Napoleon had to make a case that efficient government was better than a nonexistent but ideal government. In each of these cases, intelligent and thoughtful men have been called to reach beyond what’s politically and economically expedient to inspire, coerce, cajole and charm their constituencies into doing what is in the long-term best interest. It has seldom been easy.

In the distant future, when we look back on the last 100 years, I believe that we will see is a nation which has not learned to reconcile its politics with its economics, and which has hobbled on on the shoulders of but a few Great Men. Arguably the greatest transformative leaders of the 20th Century were Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Hitler, and Stalin. Roosevelt and Churchill were called to greatness by being locked in conflict with Hitler and Stalin.

While it is very tempting to include other American presidents like Wilson (father of the UN), Kennedy (a leader of the civil rights movement and an inspiration in the light of the Cold War), and Reagan (a truly great communicator who deserves some credit for the fall of the USSR), the simple fact of the matter is that these people were reacting to their circumstances. In a sense, Kennedy and Reagan were cleaning up Stalin’s aftermath, and Wilson unknowingly laid the groundwork for HItler’s ascent by presiding over Versailles.

But the Great Men have reacted to their circumstances, as well. Somehow, though, the Great Men are called to do more than simply react, more than simply show up, more than simply hold to their convictions. The actions of Great Men are outsized, just-right, artful and inimitable.

They have led us forward at times when we did not want to be led; showed the way at times when economics and politics offered more expedient paths; cast a visionary spell on the populace at a time when we needed to believe. Great Men have the power to call ordinary people to become extraordinary.

Today, our politics is inextricably tied to our economics. The founders expected that; the state system is designed to give regional economic interests fair say in the process and to insure that no one state dominates our national political debate. Today, however, this seems quaint.

The economic debates that matter today are not about whether to build a canal in New York or in Michigan; our economic debates are about the regulation of global corporations, human rights in China, global free trade, and immigration. Somehow it doesn’t seem the founding fathers anticipated the rise of the multinational corporation, and specifically its potential to influence American and global politics.

Today, the measure of a candidate’s popularity or viability is their ability to raise money. The candidates with the most money are generally those who are most agreeable to American Corporations. The candidates who are the most agreeable to American Corporations are also those who are most agreeable to global, multinational corporations. Therefore, we have a system where global multinational corporations get the first and most influential vote.

In a world of uneven regulations and where global corporations have only one mandate — to make money for their shareholders — we face a situation where our candidates are hostage to companies, and indirectly of governments other than our own. If Exxon/Mobil supports a candidate because they believe they will take a laissez-faire attitude towards environmental regulations in China, and if the Chinese government prefers to operate without environmental regulations because it believes it will generate more revenue, we indirectly have candidates who are locked into a variety of unsavory positions around the globe.

This is not news. It is also not realistic to suggest that we decouple the American democracy from capitalism; it is reasonable to have our system of government be influenced by and aligned with our engine of economic progress. We can temper the flaws in capitalism with sensible regulation and policy. We do a fair job of it.

The question remains, however: where are the Great Men, or Women, of 2008?

We have various people who think it’s their turn, or who have been anointed by global capitalism as acceptable, but to be frank, it is hard not to wonder if Ronald Reagan was right: that the best minds are not in government, that if they were they would be hired away by business.

That maxim may be true, but the converse probably isn’t. If it was, the best possible candidates would be hedge fund managers. However, Bloomberg may still run.

It seems we have lost a sense of what it means to be a public servant. With the scrutiny, the media, and the schedules that come with presidential politics, you really do have to be crazy to run. Is it any wonder, then, that we ended up with the oddball mix that we have?

It is doubtful that a Roosevelt or a Lincoln would fare too well in today’s races. Why is that? Maybe Roger Ailes could tweak Lincoln up a bit. (Lose the top hat, ditch the beard, a layer of foundation and a $400 haircut and you still flub Hannity & Colmes?)

Perhaps we have some Great Men and Women in our midst here in 2008. Certainly Obama is using the soaring rhetoric of a great leader, however it’s tough to know if he has the mettle to withstand the global political/economic machine once in office. Ron Paul certainly has no problem saying things that are unpopular. Hillary is trying hard but has a hard time inspiring, not unlike the rest of the candidates.

I am left feeling, as I think we all are, that we still haven’t found that one great leader who can crystallize and transform the challenges of our time. But if history is any solace, we know that a great leader comes but a few times a century. Maybe it’s just not our turn.