When I was young, there was a lot of criticism of how politicians bowed to the least common denominator and broke everything into short simple sound bites for the media. There is no doubt that the first televised US presidential debate in 1960 between a relatively unknown young Catholic senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, and Vice-President Richard Nixon changed politics forever.
Perhaps this was highlighed most tellingly in the 1985 movie “Back To The Future” when the character Dr. Emmett Brown doubts Marty McFly’s story that he is from the future and asks, “Then tell me, “Future Boy”, who’s President in the United States in 1985?”
To which Marty McFly replies “Ronald Reagan.”
Laughing in disbelief, the doctor continues, “Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who’s Vice-President? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady!“
Hearing this in 1985 when Ronald Reagan the actor was President of the United States I realized how absurd it would have sounded to someone in 1955 and I thought about how far the quality of US political discourse had deteriorated.
In the last month Israeli politics has reached an all-time low in this regard. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who even among his critics has been commended as a great orator, addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention and in an effort to refute those who try to deny the nuclear threat of Iran declared:
“If it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, then what is it? That’s right. It’s a duck. But this duck is a nuclear duck! And it’s time the world started calling a duck a duck.”
I could not believe it.
Can you imagine if Abba Eban had said that?
To add fuel to the fire, that same week, Israelis saw their president, Shimon Peres, plastered across the Internet where he appears in a techno remix music video repeating the phrase “Be My Friend, Share Peace” in an attempt to appeal to young people to friend him on Facebook voicing support for peace.
The YouTube video <http://youtu.be/FjQdB0C6ypo> was initially mistaken by many as a parody, but it appeared on the president’s official YouTube Channel. Some praised the President’s use of social media and his staff’s recognition of the importance of reaching young people. I was embarrassed.
In one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned, the Piasetzener Rebbe (also known as the Aish Kodesh after the book he wrote while in the Warsow Ghetto), taught that a good teacher goes to the level of his student and slowly raises him up according to his ability. He does not preach and expect a student to jump up to his height, but meets his student where he is.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres are not my teachers. Benjamin Netanyahu is my Prime Minister and Shimon Peres is my President and I want them to act as such. I want them to broadcast a higher standard. I want to be in awe of their nobility and statesmanship. I want my children to look up to them as heads of state who emit character traits to emulate. Regardless of politics, they represent me and my country.
Shortly following these two blunders, a married pair of graphic designers from Tel Aviv, Ronny Edry and Michal Tamir, posted a poster on a Facebook Page called Israel Loves Iran <https://www.facebook.com/israellovesiran> to tell the Iranian people that they don’t want a war. The poster is an image of Ronny Edry and his daughter with a caption “Iranians, we will never bomb your country, we <3 you.” This grassroots effort also spread through social media on the Internet. Iranians responded (despite Facebook being banned in Iran), a website was created, it received press coverage and many others posted images and comments from people to people supporting the message of peace.
There are many definitions of leadership. The common aspect that applies to all is that leaders have followers. With his poster, Edry became an unintentional leader. (These are often the best kind). Peres and Netanyahu seem to be followers. They are reducing themselves to the least common denominator and devaluing themselves which in the process cheapens and undermines their message.
I applaud politicians trying to meet people where they are. I think that the use of social media and their presence at conferences where they can engage their constituency is essential. However, heads of state should demonstrate leadership and statesmanship. They can meet people on common ground without lowering their standards, cheapening the delivery of their message or degrading the image of themselves and that of their nation.
Edry posted a creative attempt to voice a genuine positive message which came from his heart. Contrary to that, Peres and Netanyahu broadcasted a contrived and crafted attempt to speak in a voice which was not theirs. Peres’ official presence should not be a remixed techno music video and Netanyahu should be inspiring people with his words as he did for so many years as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Both men have great talent and presence. They would be best served being who they are and not who their speech writers and marketing consultants are trying to make them.