Priests, Politicians, and Samaritans by Al Sikes


The Lenten season is rich with memories both ancient and contemporary—and what vivid recollections. So with some apprehension, let me take you on a brief journey.

The Lenten season at its simplest is: “an annual season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter,” this year on April 1. Christians are encouraged to prayerfully recall the extraordinary events that led to Jesus being crucified and resurrected.

My most vivid recollections retreat to my childhood and two of Jesus’ parables, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Both stories made an enormous impression on me, and somewhere in the hierarchy of my brain, they will not let go.

Both stories have an overarching theme—concern, care, forgiveness—in what is often an unforgiving world. The Good Samaritan, while walking along a road, was confronted by an injured man who had been pummeled by robbers. Travelers had passed by without offering help, including a priest and a Levite. The Samaritan stopped and helped the injured man.

Regardless of one’s religious background, almost everyone has some familiarity with the story of the prodigal son. The son had abandoned his father, wasted his inheritance and then, only finding degrading work, asked for and received his father’s forgiveness.

I suspect both stories are well known as they are the essence of so many artistic expressions in the visual and performing arts. One of Rembrandt’s most celebrated paintings captures the distraught son being forgiven by his father.

Acts of grace transcend the news; if they were few, they would receive a lot of attention. Yet these acts co-exist today with civil estrangement. And this estrangement is exacerbated by political candidates and activists looking for an edge. The “other” forms much of our identity politics and the exploitative game.

America has unique and admirable qualities, but continued strength requires more than rhetoric. The eagle on the great seal of the United States holds in its beak a ribbon with the motto, E Pluribus Unum. The motto, which is Latin for “out of many, one,” was adopted by the Founding Fathers in 1782.

It can be argued that the motto is too idealistic. It can also be argued that the Samaritan should not have stopped on the road to Jericho. As the story unfolded, the Samaritan bound up the man’s wounds, took him to an Inn and left money for the Innkeeper to care for him—a sacrificial expression of love.

This story does not offer us an easily applied legal template. The parables often tell very personal stories that encourage personal response. Although in this case, Jesus was talking to a lawyer who was asking “who is my neighbor.”

The parables and similar stories from other religious traditions are aspirational or should be. They have, as one writer noted, formed a “thin tissue” of morality—the law above the law.

Civil estrangement in America preceded President Donald Trump—after all, we fought a Civil War. But, as America, informed by both the Bible and the Enlightenment, guaranteed unparalleled freedom for its citizens, its leaders relied on the recognition and influence of a greater good. Certainly Abraham Lincoln did.

In my lifetime there has not been a moment when the greater good narratives have been more at risk. The political edge has become a hard one—unforgiving, intolerant, and often hubristic. The most egregious development has been so-called evangelical leaders who have yielded to today’s Caesar. They, like all of us who struggle with faith’s calling, need to spend the Lenten season striving to understand the Gospel. They also need to understand that a person cannot be both a political and spiritual leader.

America needs spiritual leaders, not politicians wearing vestments.

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. 

Getting Education Right Is Not Optional by Al Sikes


A Valentine Day story in the Wall Street Journal was headlined “Blackstone CEO Gives High School $25 Million in Hope of Inspiring Others.” The gift was to his public school in Abington, Pa. The donor, Stephen Schwarzman.

The school’s superintendent, Amy Sichel, declared “This gift is going to let us dream and reimagine our schools.”

The article also noted public school gifts of millions from Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, and Hip-hop mogul, Andre ‘Dr. Dre’ Young; it also stated that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had contributed $6.5 billion to support elementary and secondary education over the years.

While living in New York City, I became active in several organizations that provided millions of dollars to enable charter schools and sustain Catholic schools. I also learned a lesson about the power of immovable objects. At the risk of over-simplification, institutional education is not easily moved.

I would like to believe Amy Sichel’s observation: “This gift is going to let us dream and reimagine our schools.” Count me a skeptic. Results will require openness to innovation.

Public school education faces a number of irrepressible forces. Popular culture destabilizes. Families are often fractured and unable or unwilling to engage their children to help assure educational success. Plus, there is a ceiling on the revenue side–taxpayer fatigue.

And public leaders in various executive and legislative branches are often too busy tending to re-election issues to collaborate on that most essential public service: the education of our children. Forming truly collaborative initiatives across organization boundaries and making sure they are at least adequately funded is difficult and time-consuming work.

Schwarzman, in giving $25 million, said he hoped to inspire others to give to public schools. While education is a leading cause for many philanthropists, most of the money goes to higher education. The top five college endowments most closely resemble the annual GDPs of small countries. Statistics compiled by US News and World Report reflects the numbers at the end of the fiscal year 2016:

Harvard University (MA) $35,665,743,000
Yale University (CT) $25,413,149,000
Stanford University (CA) $22,398,130,000
Princeton University (NJ) $21,703,500,000
Massachusetts Institute of Technology $13,181,515,000
University of Pennsylvania $10,715,364,000

The only non-Ivy League schools in the top five are Stanford and MIT—together they attract some of America’s best young scientific and innovative minds.

If you are a development officer at one of the above-noted schools, you relish the fact that each graduating class is likely to produce a relatively large number of adults who will become rich. And on the way, most will send their children to their prep and college alma maters.

The cleavages in education will not go away. But, if America is to have a bright future, public education must get better. There is some light.

The Gates Foundation is concentrating on teacher practice networks “as a model for teachers leading teachers in effective, collaborative opportunities to improve instruction.” Best practices mobility is most likely within, not outside, the institution.

There are almost 6,000 charter schools, and while they have varied successes, the best are innovative and have valuable lessons to pass on.

One of the reasons the US leads the world in higher education is because of competition.

And hopefully, Schwarzman and Gates and others will awaken their peers to the absolute necessity of healthy public schools. But to tap private philanthropy, public schools leaders must develop fundraising skills outside of jockeying for a better cut of tax revenue.

As noted, this is an important and complicated subject that does not submit to easy answers. But, since I’m looking for a concluding paragraph, let me risk oversimplification.

My experience is that students come with their home in their backpack. Unless there is a parent who provides encouragement and help most students will not succeed. If I was a principal or superintendent I would add one class and it would be for the parents.

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. 

Inspiration is in the Air by Al Sikes


Inspiration is underestimated. At the seminal level, it is the reason there is a United States of America. It is the reason the Civil War concluded as it did.

Saints were inspired to act sacrificially and we lesser humans can all tell stories about those who inspired us. Never sell inspiration short.

Inspiration writ large is both simple and complex. Historians are able to identify it, but they need time to fully appreciate its immensity. And time is needed to understand how it moved both leaders who stepped up and those who walked along side them.

Seminal acts of inspiration are endlessly studied and reported. NPR notes, “Some 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln — more books ……… than have been written about any other person in world, with the exception of Jesus Christ.”

Simply, an inspiring moment is elemental and frequently visceral. Topically, three stories of the last week stand out.

Hands down, at the recently concluded Olympics there were two moments that literally took the breath away and reminded us of the enormous power of the Olympic spirit and individual motivation.

The first, in a report by Team USA began, “Five years ago, Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins did something that had never been done before. The two American women won a cross- country skiing world championship gold medal in the team sprint.”

At the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, the same two American women did one better. They won the first Olympic medal for the US. women’s cross-country skiing team — and it was gold.

In a final dash to the line, Diggins passed Sweden’s Stina Nilsson with about a meter to go, threw her ski across the line, then fell into Randall’s arms.

“Did we just win the Olympics?” Diggins gasped as she fell to the ground.”

“Yeah!” screamed Randall.

Around them teammates, US. Ski Team staff and fans went wild. “I broke down,” said Luke Bodensteiner, an Olympian cross-country skier back in the 1990s who’s now the US. Ski & Snowboard’s Chief of Sport. “l was on my knees in tears.”

The second moment of Olympic inspiration was described in two sentences by the LA Times: “It was a hockey game transformed into an anthem.”

“The winner’s gold glowed in triumph over ignorance.”

The women’s hockey victory was simply a puck being skillfully placed in the Canadian goal by Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson. The complexity is that the team achieved a stunning conclusion

to “their boycott-threatening fight for pay and benefits equal to the men.” They won the fight for equity and the game.

Inspiration, when paired with leadership, can be an extraordinary force. So let me turn to the third inspiring moment.

Tragedy is often the foretelling of inspiration. The bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942 foretold America’s entry into WWII and the eventual defeat of Hitler and his poisonous ideology. It took inspired and remarkable public and military leadership to achieve the victories over determined adversaries.

This last week’s school shooting in Florida and the inspired leadership by a handful of students who fight under the NEVERAGAIN banner is, in my view, the kind of inspirational moment that can breakdown untold barriers. It is already having that effect as political leaders reverse their rigid stands on gun control. While the story has yet to go beyond chapter one, the power of the movement is inescapable.

A similar moment of inspiration occurred after the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015. In the aftermath of the shooting, attention was turned toward Columbia, the State Capitol where the confederate flag still flew in a position of honor. The State’s Governor, Nikki Haley, led a bipartisan collection of peers, a law was enacted and the flag came down.

Reflecting on the remarkable event, Scott E. Buchanan, the Executive Director of the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, noted: “The South Carolina legislature doesn’t move rapidly on anything, so the fact that this has all come about is remarkable. I think we’ll look back on this in future years and just be astounded.”

Whether in seminal moments or in Olympic contests or in the face of political resistance, never underestimate the power of inspiration and leaders who have the capacity to both understand and lead.

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. 

Breaking Takes by Al Sikes


Collusion with the Russians

Social and not infrequently anti-social media have created a cyclonic wind of opinion. It is almost amusing when otherwise clear-eyed people add their names to Russian-created content as they post, forward and retweet. There was a great deal of collusion with the Russians, but it was mainly unwitting.

Speaking of unwitting. Calls for government regulation of social media now populate an assortment of media. First, and of fundamental importance, our constitution guarantees free speech, not just accurate speech. Our only recourse is discernment provoked by skepticism.

Trump and Russia

One of our President’s overarching problems is frequent repetition of an ill-informed view regardless of those pesky things called facts. There is a lot of fake stuff around, a fair amount of which is embedded in the President’s twitter feed.

The origin of the expression “cry wolf” comes from one of Aesop’s Fables, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. We all remember the young shepherd amusing himself by calling for help, saying a wolf is threatening his flock when nothing is really happening. Mr. President, you should understand the ultimate risk of devaluing your statements.

Stooge Warning

The only thing worse than blather from politicians on mass shootings is the fact that the media keeps giving them a platform. Surely there are people around with more insight than NRA stooges or those who think gun control alone will solve this societal sickness. Perhaps the press might turn to those that helped start Facebook, Amazon, and Google. Ask them about data capture and analysis plus how to build a relevant database and what information we lack that is needed that might lead to timely actions.

Then you might turn to attorneys who are informed about protective custody laws. Ask them what the public can do when the evidence points to a threatening person who has not yet committed a crime.


The one encouraging sign in the aftermath of the Florida shooting has been taken by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The students are organizing a March 24 march for Washington, D.C. and other cities to call for stricter gun control legislation.

I am certain they will make good use of social media. I also hope they will call for more than gun control. While gun laws need to be changed, a much more comprehensive approach can result in a dramatic reduction of these tragedies.

And since older people get tongue-tied talking about video games that glamorize violence and desensitize killing, perhaps the students can speak persuasively to those who create the games.

Commodity Presidents

We have just finished celebrating another Presidents Day. Let’s see, were we celebrating Lincoln or Buchanan or Washington or maybe Harrison. In our quest for a long weekend, we have commoditized presidents with few if any references to the extraordinary and principled leadership of George Washington (February 22, 1732) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809) who we used to recognize on the days of their birth.

Wonder what else we can we do to neuter history?

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. 

End the Debate, Get Serious by Al Sikes


Planes were turned into bombs! New York and Washington were under attack. These facts and the gruesome aftermath awakened America and its intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

As various post-9/11 inquiries made clear, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies had, to be charitable, misinterpreted signals that an attack was in preparation. In the aftermath of the attacks, with new found resolve and highly focused action plans, America was again safe although not invulnerable.

Periodically questions are asked about both internal and external threats. Often the heads of various executive agencies and legislative committees speak of the hundreds of threats that were discovered and blocked. It is said the details of the intelligence and police work have to remain undisclosed because methods and sources need to be protected. Fair enough.

I wonder how many potential domestic shootings have been blocked. All we know is not nearly enough.

Now, we can all concede that stopping a lone actor is very difficult; witness the suicide bombings that bedevil both police and military around the world. This complexity alone means that all of our intelligence and law enforcement resources must act in intense concentration and coordination if school, workplace and public gathering attacks are to be minimized.

One thing is certain, the next attack is only a week or so away and those who survive will indicate shock that such an egregious act was possible in their community. And then law enforcement and the press will begin to connect the dots and it will quickly become apparent that the shooting or vehicle or knife attack could have been foreseen or at the very least, suspected.

In the Florida shooting case, the New York Times reported: “Almost immediately after Mr. Cruz turned up at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Wednesday and, the authorities said, killed 17 people with a semiautomatic rifle, the disconnected shards of a difficult life began to come together. Students and neighbors traded stories of their experiences with him and wondered if anything could have been done.

Some of the stories fell within the bands of typical teenage mischief-making. But others — including a comment on YouTube Mr. Cruz may have posted last year saying he wished to be “a professional school shooter” — were considerably more troubling. The comment, left under the name “nikolas cruz,” was reported to the F.B.I. by someone who did not know Mr. Cruz, and the agency said on Thursday that it had been unable to determine who had posted it.”

My guess is that if the YouTube post had been made by a person with a Middle Eastern name and the stated intention was to plant a bomb, the FBI would have located the person who made the post.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, predictable arguments underscored how feckless our leaders have become. The lack of better gun control was cited as the problem. Mental illness was a close second. We can agree that if the shooter had been weaponless or stable this would not have occurred. We are, of course, constitutionally barred from emptying America of guns. And, taking signs of mental illness as sufficient evidence to put people into protective custody would fail on both legal and operational fronts.

After the shooting President Trump said several things, but this sentence captured, perhaps, a thin thread of hope: “Later this month, I will be meeting with the nation’s governors and attorneys general where making our schools and our children safer will be our top priority. It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference, we must actually make that difference.”
So what should the public expect—a show of concern without a plan or the intention of concentrated and coordinated work? Or worse, another in a long line of debating moments about guns and mental health? Or just perhaps, the kind of resolve that followed September 11, 2001—an action plan?

America has top flight intelligence resources. They can, if intensely focused, predict and act. But without top rank intelligence, no plan will succeed.

It is hard for me to imagine a more important goal than securing our nation and its schools, churches, workplaces and public gathering spots. It is not acceptable for these all too frequent events to be relegated to debates and calls for prayer. American intelligence and law enforcement agencies can be smart and must be.

And if they need better information on gun ownership, then those that seek to block such access should not hold public office. Social media activists can undoubtedly shine an intense light on the blockers.

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. 

Outrage Costs by Al Sikes


Oxygen is life-giving. When somebody remarks that a given person’s dominant personality “takes all the oxygen out of the room” they mean that the others in the room become lifeless.

Most American journalists and especially pundits have become lifeless — outrage has consumed them. Fighting Trump seems almost the only animating stimulus.

The Afghanistan War— little is said, even less is reported from the field. And the tax bill reporting tended to be binary with the wealthy pitted against everybody else. If Trump was for it then per force it’s inner-workings had to favor the rich. Yes, there are reporters who dig and dig and then write objectively, but you have to search them out.

But, let me return to the now 17-year war in Afghanistan and begin with a simple question. What do we expect from a free press when the nation is at war?

On a visceral level, have more soldiers been killed or maimed because journalistic assets have been misallocated? How many billions of dollars have been spent because our national civilian and defense leaders have not been sufficiently scrutinized?

There are a lot of government programs that defy outcome measurements. War is not one of them. We can ask and answer whether the enemy is diminished. Likewise, we can measure territorial gains or losses. We can also measure the health of our principal ally; how is the Afghanistan government doing today?

Most importantly, any government that chooses to wage war must be held accountable for the why.

But this is not a column about the Afghanistan war, but one about journalism. Suffice it to say, the human and financial costs of the Afghanistan war have been enormous.

We know in retrospect that the press eventually played a large role in ending the Vietnam War. Hard questions were asked and answered and even those who believed in the domino theory—if America lost in Vietnam, Communism would sweep over Southeast Asia—began to disfavor the war.

Wikipedia lists 47 war correspondents who covered the Vietnam War. Peruse the list, and you will find a wide range of print and broadcast journalists. Names like Peter Arnett, Ed Bradley, Bob Simon and David Halberstam are memorable names to those of a certain age.

We certainly know that some journalists dig deep while others shrink from comprehensive reporting and still others can’t leave their biases out of their reporting. And knowing this, it is clear that if only a few journalists cover a subject, the risk of incomplete and/or biased coverage is pronounced.

If there is one subject today that is comprehensively covered, it is Donald J. Trump. The outrage is palpable. The disproportionate weighting is equally palpable. But beyond outrage, one motivation is clear. Trump sells — it is entertainment masquerading as news. It is reality TV on the cheap. Trump’s tweets provide daily fodder — a reporter can grab the days narrative early in the morning. Even reporting from the security zone in Kabul is risky and costly and often encounters the opaque. Why risk life and brain when covering the ever-colorful President is so easy?

Obviously, the White House needs to be covered and especially this one, but what about the outcome of the programs heralded by the White House? Unfortunately, in the Trump era, the storyline is all too often binary. If Trump favors “it,” whatever the “it” is must be wrong.

There has rarely been as challenging a moment for both the nation and news organizations. Most news organizations have seen dramatic staff reductions as conventional media-business models have suffered from digital media competition. And foreign coverage is certainly expensive.

Realities are often uncomfortable. A reduction in resources requires ingenuity. At least to this writer the almost mono-thematic news coverage of Trump does not reflect well on the nation’s assignment editors.

My frustration peaked several Sundays ago while watching Martha Raddatz anchoring “This Week” on ABC. Ms. Raddatz is ABC’s Chief Global Correspondent. She has earned that title in her probing reportage on our Middle-Eastern wars. Yet, Raddatz on that Sunday morning was relegated to anchoring political panels on this and that Trump outrage.

My frustration has nothing to do with the content of Trump’s comportment. It is terrible. But, his constant provocations have become boring. So what if he bashes a critic? So what if he publicly berates a cabinet member? So what if he settles a claim against him by a porn star? Report it and move on.

The content of his Presidency is more important than his considerable personal deficiencies. And no content is more important than what he does or doesn’t do as Commander-in-Chief (CC). The CC has wide-ranging discretion, and his ways and means can place both the nation and its defenders in harm’s way.

I end with this unsolicited advice to the managers and editors who make news decisions. Trump is, if anything, titillated by his dominance of the news cycle. Why else would he serve up the days script in pre-dawn tweets? As you consider news priorities and assignments, don’t forget the ethos of good journalism — help people understand what they need to know.


Footnote: President Trump has decided that the nation’s top intelligence, law enforcement, and judicial institutions are the enemies and many of his supporters seem gleeful when he attacks them. To those who find this conduct appealing, please understand the ultimate price—cynicism. History chronicles the illnesses bred by a cynical public.

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. 

Enduring by Al Sikes


I can still remember neighbors—ones that helped and whose neighborliness is still remembered. Thank you again.

My mind recalls quiet streams and my fishing bobber being pulled under. What is it about quiet streams—if somehow we could use them prescriptively?

Family dinners? Mine were almost every day. Many lessons were learned, yet the most important one was that family was important and cared. When societal forces tear at the family, what have we lost?

And then there were the talks, father to son. Father talked, son listened and knew the penalties of not doing so would bite. He talked sense before I knew sense. Where have fathers gone?

When we leave home and the councils of Mom and Dad, selling is non-stop. The noise level is deafening. Advertising urges us to do this and that—acquire more. Celebrities have eclipsed philosophers and priests. It is no wonder Ringling Bros. has shut down; the circus is at our fingertips.

Life’s wellspring is polluted. Quiet streams—their runs and swirls and eddies–have become sluiceways of excess informed by the latest rock lyricist or advertising copywriter or social media phenom.

Politics—today’s practitioners have largely yielded to money and polemics. The formula: make people mad and then exploit them.

Now the President is Donald Trump. Partisan polemics are the discourse and the government is shut down.

This is not just nostalgia. I was reminded of the way back and forward by a first time book author, Karen Crouse, who is also a sportswriter for the New York Times. Her just released book is “Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence.”

Ms. Crouse writes about a town of “roughly 3,000 residents” that has accounted for a number of Olympians and three medals without damaging the children who have athletic gifts. In Norwich, said an Olympic runner, Andrew Wheating, “it’s not survival of the fittest. It’s survival of all of us.”

We live in a time when appealing or responding to the appetite, has become our all too frequent exercise of freedom. Where self is the hub of our feelings and too often reasoning.

Our only escape is local—where we began and where we are. Families, communities, neighborhoods. And hopefully, over time, those that leave a nurturing environment will take lessons with them into the world of ambition–leaders who, recalling Wheating’s words, are informed by the “survival of all of us.”

Incivility is like a fabric tear—mend it or it will destroy. Enduring values should be our inspiration.

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. 

Appetite or Reason? By Al Sikes


What happens when big data and artificial intelligence tools dominate humanity? Will a super-rational world result as leaders, with the resources, use the tools? We are in the midst of finding out.

Count me a skeptic. The early stage of the experiment started years ago in politics. I had a front-row seat and believe the results are not encouraging.

In the 1970s and 80s, I worked with some very gifted political pollsters, strategists, and tacticians who were pushing the boundaries of targeted politics.

My collaborations were in Missouri helping friends who were campaigning for the U. S. Senate, and later Governor. My closest relationship was with Bob Teeter who founded Market Opinion Research and subsequently took the lead in campaigns for Presidents Gerald Ford and George HW Bush. Peripherally, I got to know George Gallup Jr and spent time with him talking about the predictive power of polling.

Political science had been my major and I was quite fortunate in going beyond academics into the practical application of data science in winning elections. But, I shudder to think of where today and tomorrow’s tools will take us.

The essence of political targeting is mostly exploitative. Passions are discovered and fed—moderation is left out. And when I use the term moderation I mean moderate voice.

Some years ago, Lay’s Potato Chips issued a tongue in cheek challenge: “Bet you can’t eat just one!” There is a political corollary. Once discovered, emotional positions are mined over and over.

Former U.S. Senator John C. Danforth

In a campaign I managed for John C. Danforth, then Missouri’s Attorney General who was running for the U. S. Senate, I worked with Richard Viguerie, a fundraising specialist. Viguerie was right when he said Danforth would have limited success because he wouldn’t use inflammatory language or imagery. Danforth was pro-life but refused to use an image of a fetus floating in a bottle of formaldehyde.

This 1970s story, in today’s world, seems antique. Our current President specialized in inflammation and he won.

At the risk of brevity, The Philosophical Dictionary notes, that “According to Plato, a person who has the virtue of moderation subordinates the desire for pleasure to the dictates of reason. For Aristotle, all virtues are to be understood as the mean between vicious extremes.”

Today the word moderation is used by the political immoderate to mean, unprincipled. Striking a balance is somehow heretical. In a nation of 325 million very different people, the politics of division weakens politics and society.

Abortion, unfunded public employee benefits, school choice, immigration, and guns are atop the hit parade of political combat. On issue after issue the center, often a voice of realism, is shouted down.

Two generations ago political research firms mainly used demographic patterns to predict responsive political groups. Catholics, it was thought, were likely to be pro-life. Urbanites more anti-gun. Etcetera.

Today political research and targeting is done at the granular level. The public is trolled and then sold. Relatedly, it is why candidates are tightly scripted. Political debates have devolved into a war of scripts, and the debate loser is often the victim of a gotcha moment.

In most competitive debate, debaters have to be able to take the side the judges assign. Perhaps the best question at a presidential debate is to ask each candidate to make the best case for the other side’s position.

But, regardless of how the rules of campaigns and their funding evolve, we need to understand that our appetites, not reason, are the first line of persuasion. We will be told that the other candidate (attack seems now the first line of attack) is pro this or anti that and the language used will not be moderate. This, all too successful tactic, eliminates the fondest dream of all democrats—governable consent by a well-informed electorate.

But, let me leave the final word to Irish born philosopher, Edmund Burke.

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites… Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

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. 

Christmas Humbles or Should by Al Sikes


Most writing has an autobiographical dimension—sometimes disguised but always there. This essay was triggered by a brief moment in my life which was recalled by an obituary last week.

The obituary was about Cardinal Bernard Law whose last real job for the Vatican was as Archbishop of the Boston diocese. Law was found to have covered for priests who in one way or another preyed on young boys. He was disgraced, removed and given a nominal position in Rome.

I spent some time around Bernard Law in the middle of the 1970s. Pope Paul VI named Law Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield–Cape Girardeau in Missouri. At the time I was practicing law in Springfield and was periodically in community settings with him. He was in many ways a charming, larger than life character.

His talent and charm moved him along quickly. He went from a backwater in the Church to one of its most important positions; he became Archbishop of the Boston Archdiocese.

That position became more important than what I assume were biblically informed principles–power became more important than the Church; at least if the Church is an organization of believers and followers.

Where I grew up, religious leaders were culturally important. Journalists didn’t poke around their lives and positions to find errant conduct. Today there is a journalistic swagger that follows an outing of a religious hypocrite. We are finding that the clerical calling attracts about as many hypocrites as any other career pursuit. Too bad.

We all need moral leadership—true north. It is unlikely to come from pursuits that celebrate success almost regardless of how achieved. The celebrated have a hard time avoiding the magnetic force of riches and fame at any cost.

In Christianity, the most important speech Jesus gave was the Sermon on the Mount. Most recall this counterintuitive pronouncement: “the meek will inherit the earth.”

We should also recall this metaphorical truth: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” Matthew 7:15-17

The New York Times in its Christmas Eve edition, ran a quite lengthy story on Vice, a media company and its co-founder and Chief Executive, Shane Smith.

The writer, Emily Steel, in her profile of Smith wrote, “Along the way Mr. Smith regularly mocked traditional media companies as stodgy and uncreative. But in recent years he set about courting conglomerates like the Walt Disney Company and 21st Century Fox, which were eager to profit on Vice’s cachet with millennial audiences. The latest round of investment gave the company a valuation of more than $5.7 billion.”

She continued, “People involved with Vice during its early days described a punk-rock, male-dominated atmosphere in which attempts to shock sometimes crossed a line.”

In a 2012 interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Smith recalled his earlier days with Vice. “I would be at the party and would just want to get wasted, take coke and have sex with girls in the bathroom.”

Ms. Steel concluded: “A media company built on subversion and outlandishness was unable to create “a safe and inclusive workplace” for women, two of its founders acknowledge.”

Diseased trees? Bad fruit? I wonder what Walt Disney would think?

If the lessons of Jesus define your true north, then yielding to the pull of power is destructive on more than just a personal level. The Catholic Church was harmed irreparably by the actions of a few who persisted in covering up a wrenching departure from the covenants of faith.

In the last several months, friends or acquaintances of mine who regarded themselves as evangelical Christians have backed away from that adjective as too many so-called evangelical leaders have been lured by political power into the orbit of Donald Trump.

I have been blessed and inspired by a quiet spiritual missionary and friend who was often in the presence of secular power but found the words to quietly warn against its downside. And, while living and working in New York, I joined a small group that was taken on an extraordinary tour of the Bible by Tim Keller who founded and led Redeemer Presbyterian. Beyond the biblical lessons, we were given a very human lesson in humble constancy.

But let me return briefly to the present. Christmas, even in a secular society, inspires probing explorations of the other side—the transcendent.

And my guess is that Pope Francis chose to go public around Christmas with these words to the Curia (the Vatican-based operational arm of the Church). He warned them of being corrupted by “ambition or vainglory.”

But easily the most compelling of the pieces written around the underlying story of Christmas was penned by Kim Phuc and appeared as an Op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. She began: “You may not recognize me now, but you almost certainly know who I am. My name is Kim Phuc, though you likely know me by another name. It is one I never asked for, a name I have spent a lifetime trying to escape: “Napalm Girl.”

In these words she relates, “I was photographed with arms outstretched, naked and shrieking in pain and fear, with the dark contour of a napalm cloud billowing in the distance.”

Kim Phuc goes on to tell of a salvation experience on Christmas Eve in 1982 and then expresses what should be the essence of both Christmas and every other day: “Christmas is not about the gifts we carefully wrap and place under a tree. Rather, it is about the gift of Jesus Christ, who was wrapped in human flesh and given to us by God.”

As we anticipate a new year we should all, leaders and followers alike, update Jesus’ most famous speech by re-reading Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg or recalling the words of Albert Einstein: “Our time is distinguished by wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and the technical application of those insights. Who would not be cheered by this? But let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind.”

“What these blessed men have given us we must guard and try to keep alive with all our strength if humanity is not to lose its dignity, the security of its existence, and its joy in living.”

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.