There must be better ways to select top leaders

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, May 20, 2018

The continuing travails of President Donald Trump and Governor Eric Greitens should cause citizens to take a hard look at how these men ended up in these positions and ask, “Is there a better way to select our leaders?” . It’s time for political parties to get more formally involved in selecting their candidates for the top elected jobs.

A similarity between Trump and Greitens is they were both outsiders, and hyper-critics of the political establishment. While this gave both candidates the personal advantage of running without a tainted political record, it has proven to be a disadvantage to our nation and state because they were largely untested in governing. Perhaps we have so degraded the American political system through years of cynicism that we believe anyone can be an effective politician. That simply is not true. In earlier times, politics was a noble, perhaps the highest, calling. Aristotle compared politicians to craftsman and physicians who require practical knowledge and sound judgement to be effective.

For may leadership positions, choosing between “new blood” or experience is a serious, delicate choice. Experience too often can be another word for “more of the same” and new blood sounds so inviting and refreshing. Given massive distrust about the political process, I anticipate a wave of “new faces” presenting themselves for elective offices. Cynthia Nixon, a star actor in “Sex and the City,” has already announced for her party’s nomination to be governor of New York—probably one of the top five most difficult jobs in America. Mark Cuban, Oprah Winfrey, Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks,” Dave “The Rock” Johnson, People Magazine’s “sexiest man alive” have all been mentioned as potential presidential candidates. We need to stop this. Just because Michael Jordan and LeBron James are accomplished athletes does not mean they should run for governor, or even mayor.

The roots of our “open,” haphazard nominating process go back to 1968 when neither party, but especially the Democrats, were concerned their party nominating processes were too narrow and appeared to be backstreet deals from smoke-filled rooms. Calls for “opening up the system” with more primaries and less party control resulted in a myriad of candidates with their own political base and accesses to their own campaign funds In the twenty-three years between 1945-1968, under the old convention system, only Dwight Eisenhower publicly sought the nomination of either major party. Between 1972-1992, eight outsiders (five Democrats, and three Republicans) ran for president. Between 1996 and 2016, eighteen (thirteen were Republicans) outsiders ran in their party primaries.

Ronald Reagan, perhaps the best example of a successful “outsider” president, was previously a two-term California governor and head of an actors’ organization that gave his peers an opportunity to judge his personal character and work habits. Eisenhower looks like an “outsider” and “another candidate with military experience” but he was in fact the commander of the largest military organization in the world where he managed and supervised all sorts of subordinates in a rather stressful endeavor.

While novice candidates first appear to be a breath of fresh air” unencumbered with previous party failures and frustrations, they are largely untested in the political arena. Politics is not entertainment, military service, nor private business. The Trump organization is a privately-owned business without external stockholder oversight nor public accounting reports. Likewise, while Greitens has a long record of academic and military honors, his management experience is limited to a nonprofit organization he started and ran with self-selected sponsors and directors. Compare Trump and Greitens’ work experience with that of becoming a partner in a large law firm or a tenured professor where they would have gone through annual reviews by their superiors who set the criteria of evaluation.

What would have Trump and Greitens gained if they had served in a lower office, say the U.S. Senate or the Missouri Senate, respectively? Most importantly perhaps, they would have had to listen to others—at committee meetings, on the chamber floors, to constituents and to lots of reports who could ask follow-up questions. Alpha males, especially, tend to be early bloomers in broadcasting their visions of how things should be but short on essential listening skills.

Secondly, serving a term in another office would have given potential critics and accusers time to come up with the dirt that is better found before they get to a higher political office. Third, they would have an opportunity to see if they really enjoy the demands of a political job. The hours are long, the work can be lonely, the loss of privacy is great, the glory is fleeting. Perhaps some candidates would pick other ventures saving themselves, and us, from wasted time and embarrassment.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

Columbia to rightfully honor three giants of Civil Rights progress

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, May 4, 2018

In a well-deserved and appropriate tribute to three native Columbians who are nearly legends of this town’s racial progress, the Parks and Recreation Department will dedicate the Wynna Faye Tapp-Elbert Memorial Amphitheater and the John and Rod Kelly Baseball Field on May 12. It is well earned.

Douglas Park, once just the playground around Douglas School and the pool, and built in the 1930s with a federal public works grant, was renovated and upgraded in the 1990s and was most recently improved with a skateboard park along Fifth Street that opened last fall.

Wynna Faye, who died in 2014, was a thirty-year employee of the Parks and Recreation Department. Among her many community activities were the Missouri Ethnic Minority Society and Judicial Law Enforcement Task Force. She was the founder of the Frederick Douglass Coalition, NAACP and the J.W. “Blind” Boone Heritage Foundation Board. She hosted a local public affairs radio program on KOPN, on which I appeared twice in about 2000. I remember her as warm and engaging and very knowledgeable about Columbia and local events.

John and Rod Kelly, the “Douglas Park baseball brothers,” started the Douglas Baseball program in 1996, providing an opportunity for kids aged 5-10, boys and girls, black and white, to enjoy non-competitive baseball. The program, which is still running today, is also an opportunity for black and white kids to see black and white coaches, umpires and organization leaders work together cooperatively.

But the Kelly brothers’ participation in sports and efforts to see that all kids get a chance to play and stay out of trouble began long before that. John retired as Assistant Principal and Athletic Director at Hickman High School in 1997. Rod, eight years younger, worked at Shelter Insurance, Mizzou Athletics and Columbia Public Schools, but may be best known for being the voice of Missouri basketball from the days of “Willie Smith to Doug Smith.” They played baseball at the Douglas playground, as it was called in their youth, and later umpired for Bill Clark, who was the local guru of sports organizing and promoting. Rod aspired to play basketball at the collegiate level, but an injury choose another path for him, pointing him in the direction of broadcasting that ultimately resulted in his being the voice of Mizzou basketball from “Willie Smith to Doug Smith” (from 1976-1991).

John Kelly recalls Faye, as she was called, from their days in the 1950s at Douglas School and recalls attending NAACP meetings with her at Sarabell Jackson’s house while in high school. He collaborated with Faye when he was a counselor at Hickman and she at the Parks and Recreation Department in providing special field trips for students who earned them to “keep them on the right path.” The city provided transportation and Kelly freed up teachers on Friday afternoons to prepare their lessons and attend meetings.

John credits Faye for proposing the baseball program at Douglas Park. Faye had developed the reputation for intervening with kids who were looking for trouble. She asked the Kelly’s to start up an affordable league for kids in the neighborhood. The program now has an active executive board, the Douglas Athletic Association, and charges kids $27 per season to participate. Some partial scholarships are available. They usually have three leagues (5-6 year olds, 7-8, and 9-10), playing a 10-game schedule.

John’s love of baseball and his manner of speaking about learning about race is contagious and full of kindness. When he was about five, he listened to the Cardinals on the radio and recalls the hoopla surrounding Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers in 1947. John says he didn’t know that it was about race until later, but knew it was something notable. He began collecting Dodgers paraphernalia and went to a Dodgers-Cardinals game in 1951. His parents personally obtained Robinson’s autograph on a Cardinals program, which hangs in Kelly’s office today.

Whether the Kellys are recollecting their boyhood adventures at the Douglas playground, their family’s struggle to find a contractor to build a black family a house, their racial isolation at Mizzou or the discipline and sense of community they acquired while growing up in the Douglas neighborhood, they project a dignity like that of Jackie Robinson. The Kellys used sports to build teamwork and to further youth integration in an epoch of racial strife.

The Tapps and the Kellys are pioneers of racial progress in Columbia. The Wynna Faye Tapp-Elbert Memorial Amphitheater and John and Rod Kelly Baseball Field in Douglas Park will be permanent markers of their efforts and successes in nurturing community in Columbia. The dedication is next Saturday, May 12 at 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., respectively, at Douglas Park.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.