Voice of the Past: Enoch Powell on Overstaying Your (Political) Welcome



Politicians often overstay their welcome. Presidents are lucky in that the 22nd amendment cuts short a political life before abject failure, allowing each of them to become elder statesmen. But even that defense rarely protects them in the waning year of their presidencies–as most presidents are found to be odious after eight years of them. Clinton and Bush were loathed immediately after their presidencies, and I suspect Obama will be as well. All are rehabilitated to fondness in later years–so long as they accept their exile from the ballot.

This past week, a milestone in American political history happened. For those wonks and talking heads that follow such a thing, the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor–the usual heir apparent to the Speaker of the House, lost his seat in a primary election. Eric Cantor didn’t have the luxury of a term limit to inflict the abortive blow. Instead, he had to experience what the British arch-conservative Enoch Powell observed:

“All political lives end in failure.”

Powell, a Conservative member of parliament, exuded the sort of privileged arrogance that some American politicians display. Truly, many of them can get away with this sort of bravado for a bit, but showing too much of your hand–your contempt for the electorate–will end you. Powell gave a fiery speech against immigration in Britain, a speech that went down in their history as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, and left such a bad taste upon the stiff upper lips in Britain that he lost his seat in the Shadow Cabinet–dashing any hope to lead the UK someday. Despite the fact that many agreed with his sentiments, he rode out his time as a meaningless backbencher.

His quote–his epitaph really–came from a book he wrote about another politico, the 19th century Leader of the Opposition, Joseph Chamberlain. The quote in full tells more of the story:

“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”–Enoch Powell, Joseph Chamberlain (Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 151.

Note to politicians–best to leave the game on your terms, rather than overstay your welcome.





Voice of the Past: Emerson on Procedures

Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’ve all been there; a situation where someone in authority over our work, day or life relies upon a procedure, codicil or regulation to snap things back into bureaucratic harmony. Nothing is more infuriating than procedure getting in the way of common sense. (An aside, I have always found common sense to be an oxymoron for reasons that become obvious upon an appeal to it.)

Among many of his Bon mots, this particular gem by Emerson offers a retort:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

The challenge, of course, is that a reader looking to massage their own ego may think that being inconsistent in all things is somehow a stroke of genius. I’d contend that the difference between those who are inconsistent and brilliant against those who are inconsistent and neurotic is in their productivity. Put another way by the screenwriter Bruce Feirstein in his version of 007:

“The distance between genius and insanity is measured only by success.” –Super villain Elliot Carver, in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).


Emerson is saying more than to be an iconoclast, he means that small minded people cannot shake the feeling that being consistent is a virtue. Or perhaps feigning consistency to impress those who think consistency is a virtue is somehow good in its own right. There are cases in life where consistency has its purpose, building a house, the scientific method and responding to a fire come to mind. But those are not small-minded endeavors.

Sometimes to resolve a problem or to focus on what matters, the old way will not suffice, as the old way will end up creating the same result. Einstein said as much too, in his reflections in trying to solve a problem with the same failing solution with the expectation of differing results.

Like a lot of quotes, cutting off the explanation leaves the real meaning lost, denuded. Here is the full quote:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”– Emerson, Self-Reliance

Emerson Books18 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Voices of the Past: Gore Vidal and Abe on Jealousy and Patience


“Every time a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

Vidal, one of the great craftsman of written English, was probably not being facetious in his quip, above. He was as erudite as he was vain. But in this bon mot, he is truth telling–it is hard not to feel a bit of defeat in the success of others. By our very nature, humans in are in a constant state of making comparisons. The best of us can shelve that proto-behavior. And in many cases, we outgrow the comparison behavior (at the basest level) once the wild oats are sewn. Or at least, we learn not to take things so very personally, thus why only a little something dies instead of a big something. Vidal had his own victories in life of course, very early success in literature set up a life of being the public intellectual–a sort of philosopher-king of the chattering class. But for those whose triumphs are small and hidden, or a long way off, Vidal doesn’t offer much solace. For that, we turn away from Lincoln’s biographer to Young Abe Lincoln himself, who for many is the ur-American, the undefeatable and the persistent, who said:

“I will study and prepare myself, and someday my chance will come.”

Some people in life are prodigious, like an F. Scott Fitzgerald or Salinger. Their success comes very early in life. Others must prepare, and develop their craft over time. They pay dues. They pay forward. They build up the reserves. They are the Mark Twain’s of the world. Vidal seemed to have Fitzgerald’s wunderkind success but Twain’s long view. Lincoln would have to face many more defeats than victories before his chance came. Where do you fall? Prodigy or Sage, or somewhere in between?

Young Abe by Torrey

Photo Credit Gore Vidal: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GoreVidalVanVechten1.jpg Photo Credit Young Abe Lincoln: Photo credit: TV19 – DD Meighen / Foter / CC BY-SA

Voice of the Past: Confucius on Success and Failure

Confucius in Tokyo

A friend of mine in Chicago has always reveled in the balance and interdependence between success and failure. A musician by vocation, he has taken honest jobs by day to perform his art on his own terms by night. His zen-like ability to knock down those conventions has always been inspiring to me.

In recent weeks, I have discovered a kindred spirit in another dialectical thinker, the ancient master Kong Fu Zi, know in the West as Confucius. Most Americans have heard of him, the guy who came up with the Golden Rule some 500 years before Christ. The official biography lists Confucius as a real polymath–a genius at government, music, literature, and philosophy among others.

Put another way, he was a smarty pants. He was the type of bureaucrat who had seen it all. He knew how to do it better than his boss and he had no problem saying so. And so, Confucius spent a lot of time on the outside of the governments of his communities looking in. While on the outside, he managed to mentor students seeking to understand how government works. And in those interactions, Confucius became famous as a teacher first and foremost.

When it comes to the balance between success and failure, Confucius observed a few things:

  •  “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
  • “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
  • “When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.”
  • “Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.”
  • “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it, is committing another mistake.”
  • “Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes.”
  • “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”
  • “If you make a mistake, do not be afraid to correct it.”
  • “Things that are done, it is needless to speak about … things that are past, it is needless to blame.”
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quotes/author/1644/#sthash.3IHYEhLU.dpuf
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quotes/author/1644/#sthash.3IHYEhLU.dpuf

“When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.” – See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quotes/author/1644/page=2/#sthash.eJsz2gP1.dpuf

Time proved Confucius right. After his death, his Analects became de rigueur for Chinese bureaucrats, and his concepts about people, their roles in society and respect inform much of the Chinese ethos to the present day (despite the best efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to suppress it). Balanced with the Taoist system of Lao Tsu, Chinese philosophy is comprehensive about life, its meaning, and its lack of meaning. In my own experience, I have often found the most genuine, the most sincere and the most commendable of people to be those who can admit mistakes, learn from them, and not be ashamed of their ignorance. All too often, the drive for and the displays of “success” without the acknowledgement of failure seem to me, hollow.

Or, as my Chicago philosopher-muse friend might say:

“Failing to succeed or succeeding to fail. This encompasses all my beliefs and values.”

Photo Credits:
Confucius: Tim_Arai / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Norman Rockwell. The Golden Rule. Mosaic located at Thanksgiving Square, Dallas. http://idtmi.blogspot.com/2011/07/little-thanksgiving.html

A Failure in Billings


Montana was supposed to offer everything that the urban megalopolis east coast was not—big sky and big country, cowboys and cattle. Montana is the fourth largest state in the union, but has a population of just over a million. Montana ranks 48th in population density. This was a state that very recently had a speed limit of “prudent” to allow for more speedy travel between the state’s few populated areas—Missoula, Billings, and Helena.

Billings is the largest city in Montana, but small by comparison, perhaps 100 thousand people with a modest state university in town. Think of a “county seat”—the city in a small county that houses the county courthouse, a smattering of mom and pop shops, and the requisite Anytown, America row of fast food, big box stores and gas pumps. The state was hosting my work team for a meeting of state and county officials and decided to keep things on very low budget, renting out a Holiday Inn on the south side of town–the Anytown–for the event.

I had only been at this quasi-consulting gig for about six months, and Billings was the first of my “technical assistance” work “products” (oh, the banal language of government and corporate Newspeak) under our program. The goal was to fly in, help the state’s project team make a strategic plan worthy of the governor’s and legislature’s time, and get out of there. Despite that narrow mission, I was convinced that I would be able to try to find a bit of Billings’ charm and explore the environs. After all, this was Big Sky country. Beyond the buttes lie the Beartooth Mountain range, and Yellowstone to the south. To the southeast was Cody, the site of Custer’s Last Stand. I debated renting a car for a little excursion on my own time, but my team lead didn’t seem interested, or perhaps felt that any side trip would be an abuse of company time.

Company time, what a phrase. In our tech-heavy world, the concept of company time has become muddled. Once upon a time, you clocked in, you clocked out and you went home. Companies assign laptops and cell phones in the name of productivity, but in fact, the gadgets are a leash. They put the worker on call, 24/7. In my estimation, my office is in my pocket now. If I take a phone call while overlooking the Battle of Little Bighorn or even in my hotel bathtub that is my prerogative.

When I first started posting some photos from my work travels on facebook, my high school nemesis, my “Lex Luthor,” commented that my side-trips are a violation of “portal to portal” rules. In labor law, portal to portal laws try to protect the employer from time theft and liability. For example, if an employee takes a smoke break, is that his time or the company’s time? If an employee breaks his leg on the way to work, can the employee claim workman’s compensation? In my case, if your employer is sending you on work travel, do they own your time, from wheels up to your return to home?

The last case is not so clear cut. An employer that sends you on the road needs to care for your basic needs. You get a good flight, taxi, hotel, and reimbursement for food. I can’t pack my lunch and dinner for travel, nor can I see my family at the end of the work day. My work day has to end at some point, and the time thereafter, whether on travel or not, is my own. Some employers might have a policy describing in detail what time they own when you are on business travel. Mine did not. The inference was, we worked a 35 hour work week, whether at home or on travel. In those moments, off the clock, I maximize the experience that has been presented before me—a travel opportunity. And every town has something worth experiencing, from Boston to yes, even Billings.

Or so I thought. We land at Billings airport, a solitary terminal with a high school chow line in lieu of McDonalds and Starbucks.  The airport was situated on a butte—a rather high hill in the Piedmont of the mountain ranges to the west and east. After a considerable wait, a cab, perhaps the only cab in Billings, shuttled us to the Holiday Inn.

Being a city slicker, I expected a few more sidewalks in Billings, but they were scarce. This was a driving town, not a walking town it seemed. Hungry, and looking for a local flavor, I couldn’t find anything that did seem like goop. My colleague, whom I’ll call Tex, eyeballing for similar discriminating options, looked over at me in the cab with a shared, mutual woe.

“There’s a Cracker Barrel,” Tex said despairingly.

“Seriously, a Cracker Barrel? Is that it?”

After weighing our options with the hotel staff, we ambled across the concrete expanse for the Cracker Barrel. Billings sits in a bowl of sorts, surrounded by the buttes on all sides, with high and defiant chain restaurant signs puncturing the Big Sky.

A chain restaurant can be an indulgence from time to time. After all, the whole reason that chains even exist is to offer the traveler a familiar flavor while on the road. This used to be touted as a good thing, but I could never see the value or comfort in eating the same burger in every town in America. Certainly there are local pleasures to be had, but not at this moment. Given how long we waited for our initial cab from the airport, necessity won over peculiarity.

The weather was gloomy, bone chilling cold. I opted for the chicken and dumplings, hoping for some comfort. The waitress brought out the plate, and there before me was what I first suspected to be avant-garde art. White chicken breast, atop a mound of bleached white flour dumplings with a white gravy. On a white plate. This was minimalist. Performance Art. I am not sure that Warhol could top the banality. A sprig of parsley would have been too liberal, too effete for this plate. However, salt is white, and the dish sorely required it. I did upset the balance by adding black pepper, but this only tricked my vision into thinking I was seeing in black and white. The dish was perhaps the most unappetizing thing to behold after a five-hour flight, but for a soul running only on coffee fumes, the meal would do.

Tex didn’t fare much better, his steak a grisly grey. Tex is more of an Austin Texan rather than an Amarillo Texan. Whole Foods over Wal-Mart.  I knew Tex wasn’t taking this well. Facing days of similar rubbery fare at the Holiday Inn, we had to come up with some other strategy, and to salvage Billings from the annals of travel perdition.

We asked the hotel desk where the best restaurant in Billings could be found. Bringing our east coast swagger and high cost of living into this very remotest of places, we figured we could swing the Billings high life.

Tex wasted no time here. “The Rex? Book it. For tomorrow evening.”

Of course, the restaurant was not in such demand to require a reservation—our party had the run of the place. Now, here was a menu that I thought Big Sky worthy and challenged the east coast pocketbook. Smoked BBQ,  certified Angus, Big Sky Brewery microbeer–all for about $40 a head.


Billings did let up some of its charm, but I had to hunt for it. The Holiday Inn did have a shuttle evidently, though the driver was not supposed to make runs into town, only the airport. He offered, and we tipped happily. (Travel note—hotel shuttle drivers will do that sort of thing if they are not too backed up with pick-ups. Make the tip worth their while). I asked the shuttle driver to drop me downtown, as I had to find a good coffee before my head exploded. I stumbled over the Rock Creek Coffee Roasters, a modest independent roaster in the “downtown.”  I have more often than not had great coffee at independent coffee shops, especially those that are roasting in small batches. Most coffee-addled humans will reach for the familiarity of the Green Mermaid’s burnt brews, myself included. Another chain offering universal comfort to the travel weary. If you do drink that much coffee, especially the ‘bucky’s variety, you will instantly notice the enlightened state of your taste buds as you imbibe an small batch, medium roast espresso. It is the difference between Franzia and Bourdeaux, or McDonand’s and caviar.

After coffee, I walked downtown, taking in the window shopping and poking my head into several Indian shops, where the proprietors sold hand-made jewelry, leather ware and baskets from off the reservation. As this would be the closest that I would get to the Little Bighorn, I took a look around. Indian crafts is tax-free in Montana, and that only encouraged my shopping, picking up some small baskets woven by the Crow tribe.

Indian baskets, good coffee, and the dinner at The Rex the night before, I was able to set some memories of the place before I was recalled to the “porthole” to finish my official business in Montana. Had I had a few more days, and a better start, I would have discovered the Yellowstone art gallery, the Montana and Yellowstone Valley Breweries, and a multitude of more local options in Montana’s first city. Instead, an early failure set the tone.

In the emergency management business, FEMA likes to take every crisis as a learning opportunity. Mistakes are evaluated, wounds opened and egos are bruised. FEMA will issue a “lessons learned” report, owning up to their mistakes and making plans for future disasters. In the case of Billings, the lessons learned are manifold:

  • Don’t judge any city by its “Anytown, USA” expanse of strip malls and McBurgerBell establishments–ask the locals what is good in town.
  • Rent a car–especially if there is no public transportation.
  • Don’t hesistate–if you have a moment on the trip, take it.
  • Do your homework before you travel—a Google search about the best local experience in your destination will save you from digesting a plate of white goop.

Photo credit: the@w00d / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA