Road Trips in America by Al Sikes

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“I’m 32, Mr. Dunn, and I’m here celebrating the fact that I spent another year scraping dishes and waitressing which is what I have been doing since 13……..other truth is, my brother’s in prison, my sister cheats on welfare by pretending one of her babies is still alive, my daddy’s dead, and my momma weighs 312 lbs. If I was thinking straight, I’d go back home, find a used trailer, buy a deep fryer and some Oreos. Problem is, this is the only thing I ever felt good doing. If I’m too old for this, then I got nothing. That enough truth to suit you?” Maggie Fitzgerald, Million Dollar Baby

Few movie scenes remain vivid in my mind. But when Maggie Fitzgerald, in a stunning portrayal by Hillary Swank, faced off with Frankie Dunn the boxing manager, played by Clint Eastwood, the imprint endured. So when I read that the founder of Facebook and multiple billionaire Mark Zuckerberg had taken a road trip to better understand America, the scene flashed back.

As Maggie’s plaintive dialogue reveals, she is a waitress who had grown up in a hard-scrabble family. She was also a pretty good boxer who had come to Frankie Dunn’s gymnasium to ask him to manage her career.

Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn was an edgy traditionalist who didn’t see the boxing ring as a fit place for a woman.

Frankie Dunn didn’t understand Maggie Fitzgerald and Mark Zuckerberg will need more than a road trip to understand America.

Zuckerberg finished high school at Phillips Exeter Academy and college at Harvard. He is said to be the fifth richest man in the world. He is, of course, the founder of Facebook and a road trip will not provide a real connection to a world he has never occupied.

My road trip began in 1986 when I came to Washington and continued in 1993 when my wife and I moved to Manhattan. Decreasingly, I found, did I work or play with people who shared my background. In some ways when I left my home state, Missouri, I left a public world and entered a private one.

Most of my new peers and associates attended private elementary and secondary schools and colleges. I was a public school guy in a private school world.

Age invites reflection. Having spent the backend of my career in the digital industry, my reflections are in part informed by that fact. And the fact is that the digital age rewards, and often in outsized ways, those who were shaped from an early age to complete algorithmically.

David Brooks wrote a column recently in which he talked about the pediacrats: “It’s the pediacracy, stupid. Over the past few decades, upper-middle-class Americans have embraced behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life. As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids.”

Commenting on a book in the same column, “The Sum of Small Things,” by Elizabeth Currid- Halkett, Brooks notes, “To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food, truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.”

My East Coast field trip, or to be more honest, residency, brought me fully into this world. I am from time to time still disoriented, but never more so than when I puzzle about what might be done to bring America together again.

I believe it is safe to say that most coastal, upper-middle-class residents were shocked by the election of Donald Trump. I was surprised, but not shocked, having had the good fortune of experiencing much of America’s diversity.

When we chose to end national service, we unwittingly chose to end meaningful assimilation. Most, unfortunately, we turned characterization over to character actors directed by often condescending film directors. Empathy was not possible.

Zuckerberg is a poster boy for disruption and the enormous economic leverage enjoyed by the tech elite. He was private school all the way. He enjoys an elite intellect and voracious ambition. Most Americans are not on the road to high technology riches or even the rewards that come to those in the upper echelons of value-added work.

The Hillary Swank character was willing to do what was necessary regardless of where her work landed her on the social ladder. Likewise, many who voted for President Trump were willing to do what they thought necessary to shake up the political world.

Movie-goers know how Million Dollar Baby ended.

It is impossible to know how this wrenching chapter in America’s political life will end. But, let me hazard a guess.

Trump will ultimately fail. He does not know either America or political leadership. It is not enough to exploit anger; successful Presidents must also understand America’s generous nature and how to tap its energy. And, I am not talking about larger budgets, but the respect we want and extend to others.

I also do not believe the next President will come from the corporate world. Those who know America best have served in its armed forces, the only popular institution. I believe Americans will once again turn for leadership to those who know America best.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

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Letters to Editor

  1. Deirdre LaMotte says:

    I enjoyed this piece. Who knows what in in store for us now…God help us.

    I must add that common decency is not an economic matter. Trump is
    a pathetic and sick person. What is truly mind numbing are people from
    every economic situation who chose to overlook the unforgivable and put
    him in office. That is scary.

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