Game Show Politics by Al Sikes


How would you like to be a contestant in a game show? Well, all you have to do is participate in the Presidential nomination contest to choose the Democrat, presumably to run against Donald Trump, himself boosted by a game show.

As of now you are on the clock. There are twenty-four choices and several clues. Debates start soon and voting begins a few weeks into the new year.

Polls suggest Joe Biden will prevail. Many commentators point to Bernie Sander’s advantage – passionate supporters. Still others can’t believe that the end-game will be down to two late 70s white males going head-to-head.

I tend to agree with the “it’s time for a new generation” crowd, although as of this minute I do not vote in Democratic primaries. I did, however, mail a check to Seth Moulton, a U.S. Congressman, after watching an interview. And, there are several other thoughtful leaders in the wide field. Amy Klobuchar, for example, has an impressive record as a legislative leader.

Lanes have become the chosen metaphor as analysts seek to order their analysis. The Left lane is led by Bernie Sanders, who is said to be the inspiration for candidates who are not allergic to being called socialists. The Center lane is led by Joe Biden. I believe there should be a leadership lane; most decisions Presidents face do not fit neatly into ideological predispositions. I would put Moulton in the leadership lane.

For example, what happens when one of our foreign adversaries becomes aggressive, militarily? What should we do when our elections are attacked or our electrical grid? And maybe the election winner can deal with health care by eliminating the private version, but I suspect the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis will alone, change the path to a revised health care law. U.S. debt narrows policy options across the board.

In an interview, Moulton characterized Trump as a weak Commander and Chief. I agree. Moulton has standing to criticize. He earned the Bronze Star and the Commendation Medal and has been “uncomfortable calling attention to his own awards out of respect to many others who did heroic things and received no awards at all.”

He also recommended a program that ties national service and financial support for college or vocational education. A 21st Century GI bill, if you will. Good idea.

My assessment of Trump as Commander and Chief is somewhat different from Moulton; Moulton stressed his lack of service. My concern: his vanity. Global leadership must, in most cases, leave room for the adversary to save face at home. Chairman Xi, to resolve trade disputes with Trump, has to lose face. Trump scolds China and then pronounces that he will win the trade dispute and, of course, that it will be the greatest win ever.

The truth is that President Trump is weak. He is a lame duck; voting begins ten months from now. His Party lost the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections. And the poll numbers, according to Fox News, has him trailing in a matchup with Joe Biden by 12 points. And beyond that, he can only proceed by Executive Order on any policy initiative because the Congress is certainly not going to give him a win.

Now let me return briefly to the game board and leadership. Most of the candidates have been in Washington for years. Their leadership training was there. As my Washington service stretched on to seven years I became convinced that the magnetic field is created by interests that target weakness—hyper-partisanship, fawning lobbyists, and the non-stop lure of ambition. Spending time in Washington is helpful, but spending too much time is debilitating—its influence subordinates knowledge, instinct and integrity.

Seth Moulton has only been in the race for four weeks and needs to receive donations from 65,000 persons to be included in the debates; that is why I sent him a donation.
America needs a leader who can cross all of the lines that civil disharmony has created. And one of the most important and currently impregnable lines is in the Congress. Moulton was recognized to be “the most bipartisan member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New England.”

I have highlighted Seth Moulton, because of debate qualifications. But, I can’t pass up a quote from Walter Mondale about Amy Klobuchar. He quipped that “She has done better in that miserable Senate than most people there.” She also deserves to be in the leadership lane.

The game’s clock is not yet in countdown mode, but early evidence of success is essential. So to my Democrat friends who will argue I have no standing and to my Republican ones who will regard me as treasonous, I simply say, this is our country not a game show.

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. 


Alternative Universe by Al Sikes


Amazingly, a real estate developer, reality TV personality and propagandist has created an alternative universe. Must have been something broken.

The setting: the White House. The big house is well known to older generations, but the 21st Century script and staging are maddeningly alien. Older generations are accustomed to decorum (even if it is deceptive), while their preferred media are press conferences, newspapers and the nightly news.

Most older Americans expect familiar patterns to change; they anticipate the old world yielding to the preferences of the young. But, as it turns out the shaper is not young, he is in his seventies.

Just as the traditional media is shrinking under disruptive technology and economics, along comes Donald Trump with what has turned out to be a debilitating gift. He is the news. You can close down those costly foreign bureaus and expensive investigation departments – just cover Trump. Outrage or pandering will do.

The President, however, is not that easy to cover if indeed the intent is to cover, not just him, but his policies as well. It is easy to voice outrage or pander to his narcissistic needs, but actually covering his Presidency is not so easy. Unless, of course, the Steele Dossier brackets your curiosity.

How many thoughtful or probing stories have been served up on his Mideast policies and diplomacy? Or, on our face-offs with China or North Korea? Or, on the broader implications of his tax, trade or fiscal initiatives? It is much easier to script and produce a soap opera with familiar themes and actors.

The Trump phenomenon is, if nothing else, wrenchingly revealing. It has revealed institutional weaknesses in stark terms. Political parties, news media, and Congress are not just weak in the minds of Americans, they are complicit. Complicit in America’s decline.

Workers buffeted by trade and technology see two political parties that are orchestrated by their bases. The Republican Party seems anchored to social issues and tax reduction, while the Democrat Party seems enamored with utopian dreams and identity politics.

The news media and its consumers were ripe for the Trump counterattack: fake news. Indeed one critic, Matt Taibbi a Contributing editor of Rolling Stone, commented, “….news that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is headed home without issuing new charges is a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media.”

And, as one friend noted, Members of Congress seem mainly to be good at saving Post Offices that should be closed. Why not? As manufacturing moves away and school districts consolidate, often the only vestige of a saner time in rural America is the Post Office. And to borrow a phrase, it takes a Congressman to save a Post Office. Who else can draw on yet more debt to save the bankrupt?

There is, of course, hope. America has proven to be adaptive and resourceful. As she lost her business strength in hardware, her entrepreneurs turned to software. Old cities are reinventing themselves. New educational initiatives are pushing its bureaucracy.

But in matters political, the reinvention is much more difficult because the powers that be are excellent at hunkering down—that phenomena attacks political science. They have erected walls of protection. Just as Congress protects the Post Office, State Legislatures have mastered gerrymandering and laws that make it difficult for new political movements to get on the ballot.

Maybe there is a gift in Trump’s Presidency. Maybe the wider public will be “woke” (aware and enlightened) to the perils of political rigidity in a disruptive era and discipline the politicians. But, as I pen these lines, I am reminded of the parting words of Mayor Frank Skeffington in the movie The Last Hurrah. As friends of the terminally afflicted Mayor surrounded his beside, the Catholic Cardinal suggested the Mayor on reflection would probably have lived his life with greater integrity. The Mayor’s final words: “Like hell I would.”

There are 21st Century scripts to be written and what a fight they will feature. The irrepressible energy of disruption tangles with the immovable, political parties. If film writers and the news media can step back, take a deep breath, and fend off biases then there are great stories to be written and news to be reported.

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. 

Beyond Inconvenient Truths by Al Sikes


With apologies to the phrase-maker, we should all spend some time with “inconvenient” truths.

Truth #1: The nation’s balance sheet is overloaded with debt. We owe $65,600 per capita, up 512% since 1990. The wealthy can shoulder the burden, but what about everybody else? As debt piles up, less will be spent on current challenges. Yet, politicians don’t talk about the debt except in abstract terms.

Truth #2: Better wages cannot be decoupled from better jobs. Better jobs are those that provide not just higher wages but job satisfaction—even pride. Nor can better jobs be decoupled from elementary and secondary education achievement.

Truth #3: Capitalism must be disruptive or new opportunities disappear. Likewise, education must be disruptable or too many teachers and administrators become bureaucrats protecting themselves. And, since it is an indisputable truth that disruption is a defining characteristic of the 21st Century the most important political question is how do we adapt.

LeBron James, the basketball player, has an insightful perspective on the problem and solution. He has spent his young life adapting his extraordinary skills to the wide array of defenses meant to stop his scoring. He has recently brought his adaptive skills to education. Here are a few highlights  from a New York Times article on the I Promise School  James started in his hometown of Akron, Ohio:

“Every day, they are celebrated for walking through the door. This time last year, the students at the school — Mr. James’s biggest foray into educational philanthropy — were identified as the worst performers in the Akron public schools and branded with behavioral problems.”

“The academic results are early, and at 240, the sample size of students is small, but the inaugural classes of third and fourth graders at I Promise posted extraordinary results in their first set of district assessments. Ninety percent met or exceeded individual growth goals in reading and math, outpacing their peers across the district.”

“Unlike other schools connected to celebrities, I Promise is not a charter school run by a private operator but a public school operated by the district. Its population is 60 percent black, 15 percent English-language learners and 29 percent special education students. Three-quarters of its families meet the low-income threshold to receive help from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.”

“The school’s $2 million budget is funded by the district, roughly the same amount per pupil that it spends in other schools. But Mr. James’s foundation has provided about $600,000 in financial support for additional teaching staff to help reduce class sizes, and an additional hour of after-school programming and tutors.”

“The school is unusual in the resources and attention it devotes to parents, which educators consider a key to its success. Mr. James’s foundation covers the cost of all expenses in the school’s family resource center, which provides parents with G.E.D. preparation, work advice, health and legal services, and even a quarterly barbershop.”

“The 90 percent of I Promise students who met their goals exceeded the 70 percent of students districtwide, and scored in the 99th growth percentile of the evaluation association’s school norms, which the district said showed that students’ test scores increased at a higher rate than 99 out of 100 schools nationally.”

“The school’s culture is built on “Habits of Promise” — perseverance, perpetual learning, problem-solving, partnering and perspective — that every student commits to memory. The slogan “We Are Family” is emblazoned on walls and T-shirts.”

“On a tour of the school on Monday, Michele Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, pointed out what she called I Promise’s “secret sauce.” In one room, staff members were busy organizing a room filled with bins of clothing and shelves of peanut butter, jelly and Cheerios. At any time, parents can grab a shopping bin and take what they need.”

Americans should be able to talk about best practices in education and it shouldn’t take a celebrity to draw attention to education’s failures. Yet, the education establishment has constructed a maze of trip-wires that one educator characterized as adults looking out for adults.

Nowhere is political labeling more perverse. The life of a child—the most important education moment—moves quickly and then it is over. And, the children who fail at school are likely to fail in life.

The I Promise School recognizes that homeschooling is indispensable. I was, early in life, an indifferent student. My Mom was not indifferent. I went to public school and then I went home to my Mom’s school, enforced by my Dad’s insistence on discipline. Every child needs homeschooling.

News the past several weeks featured a Perp walk of parents who bought their children’s admission to college instead of assuring their eligibility every step of the way from elementary to secondary stages. Too often higher education provides options for legacy or wealthy parents to bypass standards of admission.

Returning briefly to basic truths. The United States does not have now and it certainly will not have in the future enough money or wisdom to re-engineer society. What it does have are examples of educational practices that work.

In the future, basketball referees and scorekeepers and the like might well be robots. But, the fans will expect accomplished players on the court. If today’s children are to be on the court, educational structures must be disruptable and adapt to assure alignment between parents, children, and teachers.

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. 

Bees, Quail Disappear While Ticks Spread by Al Sikes


The rabbit fit into the palm of my hand. It was stunned when I took it from the soft mouth of my Labrador Retriever; it invited rescue. I can recall other wild things that I have rescued, some reluctantly. Snakes lead the list. But this tiny bunny was right out of a children’s storybook.

My wife took the bunny and put it into a 12 inch tall cardboard box with water and lettuce and inserted the box into a sink on a kitchen island. The island was approximately 36 inches above the floor. We were reasonably optimistic that we were giving the bunny a chance to grow up to be a rabbit.

The following morning the bunny was gone. He had climbed up the slick surface of the box and had jumped to the floor. We and most importantly our two dogs looked everywhere. We felt certain they would scent the bunny. No luck.

Four days later the bunny reappeared, animated the dogs and after a short chase I caught it and took it outside where it quickly disappeared in the tall grasses just off our lawn.

Rabbits face predators from all sides and above. They are a prime source of calories for foxes, raptors and their tiny offspring are hunted by snakes among other predators. A rabbit has to have wild senses and the agility to elude the hungry. So too, Quail.

Quail have almost disappeared from much of their native grounds they shared with us. For many they are an abstraction. Their habitat has largely disappeared under the blade of heavy equipment and the toxins of herbicides. When is the last time you heard a quail sing or were startled by a covey rise? And we shouldn’t forget that quail are part of the food chain and lunch on ticks.

Several years ago I looked into a shortcut—releasing pen-raised quail on my farm. The story of the rabbit accentuates the folly. A rabbit purchased at a pet shop would not have escaped the box or rebounded from the fall. Pen-raised quail do not have nature’s defense mechanisms to avoid death.

A glimmer of hope has developed in recent years. Both State governments and private organizations have begun efforts to revive the wild quail. They are learning what works and doesn’t and getting better and better at their mission. But, fighting chemicals, heavy equipment and the desire, by some, to leave no dollars on the table is not easy work.

In a sense this is one more battle between irrepressible forces and immovable objects. Yet, in this case the immovable object is, well huge—industrial strength. It is underwritten by bottom lines that leave nature out of the equation. Try to find quail on an Excel spreadsheet.

Quail are fortunate in one respect. They have important allies—pollinators. Pollinators—bees and butterflies principally–depend on many of the same plants that provide protection and food for the quail. On a strictly utilitarian level we can do without quail, but not pollinators. Nature gives us life, including a mix of plants, grasses, trees, shrubs and of course wildlife; they comprise a virtuous circle. When we declare war on the natural systems, we are declaring war on ourselves. We convert a virtuous circle to a perverse one. Adults need to understand the birds and bees.

This is not a new story; humans become preoccupied with wants only to lose what we need. We need buffer filters for clean water. We need pollinators. And the loss of quail is the loss of an important inheritance, forgotten over time. The quail sings a captivating tune and then it is gone.

When my wife and I bought a small row crop farm, we were attracted to its topography and a farm setting on the upper Miles River. We did, however, plant corridors of warm season grasses and developed a five acre wetland.

Quail have not appeared but we have an abundance of very interesting species that crop fields eliminate. Turkey, rabbits, woodcocks and even a Eurasian wading bird called a Ruff have shown up. When the Ruff flew in to wade around our wetland, cars piled up along our right-of-way as Birders from hundreds of miles away came to catch sight of this rare bird.

Our grasses also started a number of interesting conversations. Many could not fathom fields left unmowed; our property was not patterned after a golf course. It became easy, however, to change the conversation as my wife and I are beekeepers and that attracts a lot of questions.

I wish our weekly visuals could be easily shared. A woodcock at sunset is thrilling. A turkey flush as my Labrador and I were walking a pathway got our attention and when we take an evening walk in the fall we often see ducks landing against an orange sky. But, no sighting of quail.

I did one day hear the quail song. It must have been a mockingbird, but then where did the mocking bird pick up the tune? A bit of hope, a distant time remembered.

The distant time was my first hunt with my Dad. We shot a quail or two, but the memory is in the pointing dogs work and the covey flush. So yes, I am a dreamer.

But let me go back briefly to my first hunt. Quail have not been hunted out and I have no intention of hunting them again. Quail have fallen to indifference.

While some are working to bring the Bobwhite Quail back, even more are working to protect pollinators; without habitat that supports quail, they too will decline and then disappear.  The thrills of nature are important, but the pollinators are crucial and that is where my native optimism is encouraged.

Wildlife habitat should be a part of every farm and large-scale commercial development. Studies show that farm edges and other marginal yield acres can be used for wildlife to economic advantage. And wildlife habitat should be in the equation as developers seek to convert large tracts of land. Federal and State programs exist to help private landowners reclaim any economic losses. In this respect, Missouri leads the way; it has 47 “private land conservationists” working with landowners on plans and funding alternatives.

Most farmers I know prize wildlife almost as much as their way of life. But many are caught in one of these endless cycles of economic scale and the debt that underwrites its growth. And there is certainly no end of industrial behemoths selling equipment, chemicals, and seeds and then buying the resulting harvest.

Yet, quail in many ways are the “canary in the coal mine”. A canary’s death told miners that the air was too polluted to go any further. As water cascades across parking lots, highways, and fertilized fields it gathers pollutants that wash directly into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries unless there is habitat that filters water. And buffer habitat is the home of pollinators, songbirds, small mammals and potentially quail. Distilled down it is simple: if quail return, our watershed will flourish and not at the expense of the farmer.

Reclaiming our inheritance— clean water, quail, rabbits, pollinators, is our burden.

Remember the rabbit whose wild genes saved him from my Labrador, a cardboard box and a three foot fall? Tall Timbers, an organization that you have likely not heard of is making a difference—it is translocating wild quail, 5,400 to date and is working with a variety of partners to share research and best habitat practices.

It works with both private and public partners that can devote enough acres of habitat to make translocation work. Projects in the Mid-Atlantic include working collaboratively with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. One study site is Chino Farms in Queen Anne’s County and other Maryland sites are referred to as “habitat cooperatives” comprised of both private and public lands.

And on the northern fringes of quail territory Tall Timbers is working with New Jersey Audubon at the Pine Island Cranberry property where they are in their third year of translocating quail.

Several weeks ago I talked to Tall Timbers Czar of quail restoration, Theron Terhune, Ph.D., Director Game Bird Program. I joked with him that he has the power that most Czars of this or that lack. Terhune assesses a potential translocation site and its habitat and management practices must measure up or it will not receive wild quail.

I would love to hear the quail song from my front porch. I dream about being startled again by the thunderous covey flush. Maybe my neighborhood will someday support quail but only if I act. Leaving a land ethic to others should not be an option.

Interviews for this essay included: Dan Small, Field Ecologist and Natural Lands Project Coordinator, Washington College; Christopher Williams, Professor of Wildlife Ecology, University of Delaware; Dave Hoover, Small Game Coordinator, Missouri Department of Conservation; Bob Long, Wild Turkey and Upland Game Bird Project, Department of Natural Resources, Maryland; Dr. Theron Terhune, Game Bird Program Director, Tall Timbers; Ned Gerber, Wildlife Habitat Ecologist, Jerry Harris and Bill DAlonzo, dedicated private landowners.

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. 

Are There Answers? By Al Sikes


Easter week in my faith tradition—Christianity—is rich with questions and necessary introspection.

Jesus Christ is tortured, crucified, and resurrected. Power, the human intoxicant prevailed, at least until “the stone was moved back.” A more intense human drama, swirling around deep religious and temporal cleavages, is hard to imagine. In both human and religious history, there is not a more dramatic context serving up more vital questions.

This week then presents the final chapters: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and then Easter Day. But, allow me to use this drama to ask other than just religious questions. Questions that are both religious (recurring in most faiths) yet, quite human.

Love is the essence of the Judeo-Christian faith. Divine commandments are clearly stated. Yet we know that humanity has a difficult and, for some, impossible relationship with love. Indeed some who disparage faith, in a divine being, use the impossibility of enduring love as proof of hope over reality.

Christianity recognizes the intractable difficulty and assures us that we can ask for and receive forgiveness when our passions or intellect preempt our devotion. Some, noting the apparent ease of forgiveness, suggest we engage in “cheap grace.” Recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, the German theologian who gave up his life challenging Hitler, words: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

I have now strayed into territory that should be left to those who have made faith and its attendant callings their life’s work. Let me instead translate the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves into a single word: empathy.

What would the United States be like if we had more empathetic capitalism, for example? Does empathy toward employees and customers undermine the profitable provision of products and services? Or does “hard market” capitalism eventually undermine free markets?

Much is written about self-love in the context of helicopter parenting, selfies, narcissistic leaders, celebrities and the like. Love or empathy cannot exist without some level of humility. Only by recognizing our own vulnerabilities can we find genuine, empathetic expression for others.
Can empathy exist when it is largely expressed within an affinity circle? Is empathy simply a tool when expressed by politicians? When self-love is both ascendant and ubiquitous is the culture healthy?

Questions beg questions, but attention spans say wrap it up. So, in this most holy of weeks, in my faith tradition, I simply leave you with questions. But, I would submit, that exploring for answers to life’s most important questions is itself a good journey.

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. 

Does Choice Appeal to You? By Al Sikes


Choice! It is simply hard to fathom a richly layered life without it. I can imagine some would enjoy always having to choose from no more than two alternatives, but not me.

Indeed we have laws that lean hard against monopoly (a single provider), duopoly (two providers), and at times even an oligopoly (concentrated  power). The legal term is antitrust, the underlying philosophy recognizes the constricting if not predatory nature of not having a choice. Quality suffers. Prices are too high. Often service must be regulated. Plus, trying to reach somebody to help puts us in dial-around hell.

So how do we tolerate laws that narrow one of our most important choices: elected leaders? In important ways, laws, written and unwritten, circumscribe choice right down to how many can appear in Presidential debates, an essential gate to viability.

Since most of today’s political noise surrounds the 2020 election for President, I will concentrate my distaste. Let me begin with political Party ideology which so presses in on candidates they can barely think or have a reason to do so. The base, left and right, funded and stirred by special interests, often dictates the script. Is there, for example, a candidate who is both pro-choice on the issue of abortion and quite conservative when it comes to budget deficits?

Ideology is a French word and its origins date to 1796. Perhaps the most colorful disdain for the term and its implications date to an exchange between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. About ideology Adams asked: “Does it mean Idiotism? The Science of Non compos menticism? The Science of Lunacy? The Theory of Delirium? Or does it mean the Science of Self Love?”

My take: it is frequently the science of thoughtlessness. Ideologists are relieved of having to think, as somebody else has written the script. In a world where Google allows almost infinite searching for an answer, our political leaders are relegated to a search algorithm that is mostly featured in children’s books.

What then are we to think when presented with two choices to be President and learn neither of them thinks? They are even relieved from having to provide context for their ideological answers to questions about life, debt, health, security and the like because there are marketing people who do that.

With those thoughts in mind, I watched Howard Schultz last week fielding questions at a televised Town Hall meeting in Kansas City.

Voila, Howard Schultz thinks. And he carries the confidence of accomplishment; he was, among other things, prepared to admit error. When talking about Starbucks, the company he founded, he was particularly passionate about employee health, education and retirement benefits which are available to full and part- time employees (called Partners).

The Town Hall hosts, showing conventional skepticism, asked how he could possibly win since if he runs it will be as a Third Party candidate. Schultz, displaying a confident tone, talked about the rigidity in the two Parties; he believes left/right ideology will result in much more passionate centrist voters from both Parties. We’ll see.

But, from my standpoint sign me up, I want choice. Division now organizes our collective lives and that must end.

Finally a further word on Presidential Debates. There is an organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD); it is one of those centers of power that most people do not know about. The Commission of twelve persons decides the criteria a candidate must meet to qualify. In order to appear on the debate stage, a third Party candidate must poll, nationally, 15%. The polls are conducted post-Labor Day.

By the Fall of any given Presidential election year, Independents, sensing that one of the two major Party candidates will win, begin to voice their support for the least objectionable. After all, by then, the advertising channels are filled with advertisements for the two candidates who enjoy overwhelming financial advantage.

Criteria for 2020 have not been published. Using the same 5-poll arrangement, the CPD should include the third Party candidate with the most support thus assuring a three-way debate. This simple shift would tell the universe of voters who register as Independents that they have a role to play. The result would be catalytic, both during the campaign and the debates. Independents would be given a voice and candidates would be forced to think.

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. 


Awaken to Woke by Al Sikes


“Pride makes us artificial; humility makes us real.” Thomas Merton

Or, to put it another way: camera on: artificial; camera off: possibility. At least possibility can yield to humility and the real self.

We are now in the “Woke” era. Woke, in part, is defined as “alert to injustice in society.” We are pushed to be awake to insulting behavior. Most perilously the way forward is guarded by a new priesthood. And the rule book seems to be situational and is often informed by feelings, which is to say emotion.

It is not my tendency to be pessimistic. But, I can imagine that pessimists, in particular, are more sensitive to potential insult as they are more likely to interpret on the dark side of humanity. I can recall a moment when often the reaction to potential offense was: “no offense meant, none taken.”

At an early cognitive moment, I was told about the Golden Rule. As time unfolded I learned of its origin. And then through biblical exposition, a clearer definition took shape. In the vernacular of today, I awakened to what I understood to be divine guidance.

“Woke”, absent scriptural guidance, is often defined by cameras and talking heads. Beyond being in a “woke” era we are also in an artificial one. The camera does not come on until after the people on the screen have been to the makeup room.

Then the screen guests go to the “green room” where they silently rehearse scripted lines while fleetingly recalling the Q&A their staff pressed on them to make sure all contingencies are covered.

What a strange alchemy. We stir our impending moment of fame with what is trending on Twitter and then we are confronted by a TV personality whose goal is embellishing his/her fame. Pride squared.

Today Joe Biden’s insulting behavior is trending—this is an awkward moment for him. The scribes have him announcing his candidacy for the Democrat nomination to be President in the next week or so and the TV personalities won’t be interested in his domestic or international policy views, but in his various too affectionate personal moments. Hugging and kissing will trump security and debt.

Could even our most iconic leaders remain upright in the “woke” era? I have read a fair number of biographies and don’t recall any in which the subject didn’t have his or her moments of humanness. Yes, humanness.

My wife, Marty, worked on the US Senate side of Capitol Hill for then-Senator John C. Danforth. She told me from time to time about the pleasantness of Senator Joe Biden, who was Danforth’s next door neighbor in the Russell building. She also related that most Senators rushed through the halls with self-importance in the air and aides trailing behind. Plenty of them in any given election cycle want to be President.

It is with some hesitation that I write this column, as I know that “woke” is trending and its priests will not excuse 1980s manners as mitigating. I will, however, end with one suggestion. The “woke” priests should use parables to explain the triggers. Give those who have the audacity to offer themselves for office some guidance.

Perhaps I should add that a septuagenarian should probably be working on his golf game and an exculpatory autobiography.

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. 

Incoherence by Al Sikes


Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman David Irving announced on Instagram that he’s leaving the NFL, saying he’s prepared to “quit” football unless it loosens its stance on marijuana…….’

“Pass the blunt, bro,” a smiling Irving said into the camera while holding a sizable joint. “Weed … you’re addicted to this, and that. I mean, s–t, if I’m going to be addicted to something, I’d rather it be marijuana, which is medical. It’s medicine; I do not consider it a drug, rather than the Xanax bars or the hydros or the Seroquel and all that crazy s–t that they feed you.”

America, indeed much of the world, is struggling to deal with a psychoactive drug that offers escape. Commercial interests, eager to exploit its marketability, find new and often dangerous ways to broaden its appeal. Marijuana in your brownies? And of course, governments are constantly searching for new revenue sources often preying on human weakness.

As an article in Forbes notes, “Schedule One drugs, substances, and chemicals–like marijuana– are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use. Further, they are considered to have a very high potential for abuse. In comparison to marijuana, other drugs in this category are heroin, acid diethylamide (LSD), 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone and peyote.”

History is telling. Alcohol and then tobacco and now marijuana. The first was once prohibited and then turned over to the States with often bizarre results on distribution and sale.

Tobacco was welcomed and then it wasn’t. Watch the old movies on television; glamour and cigarettes were paired. I once smoked and then was moved to quit by the Surgeon General’s findings linking smoking to lung cancer.

We need the Surgeon General to once again, with public health as the mission, make findings and recommendations on how marijuana should be regulated. And, importantly, how its use should be portrayed.

Is it healthy for marijuana to be cool? Is it healthy for either cannabis or its by-products to be portrayed as medicinal? At this point there is only one FDA approved medicinal use; in June of last year, the FDA approved Epidiolex (cannabidiol) [CBD] oral solution for the treatment of seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy.

Recently, a troubling study on cannabis was published in The Scientist Magazine. Researchers found that there was a 40 percent greater chance of developing a psychotic disorder among people who had used the drug more than once a week, as compared with those who had rarely or never tried cannabis. The risk was three times greater among daily users, as compared with rare or nonusers, and higher still among daily users of high-potency cannabis.

At present, the incoherence of marijuana laws that are being rolled out state-by-state works in favor of commercial interests. When the commercial culture overtakes important questions about health then the hard work of making a discerning judgment is compromised.

In the United States “a total of 34 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and US Virgin Islands have approved  comprehensive, publicly available medical marijuana/cannabis programs.” A majority of States have in essence certified cannabis as a constructive medical alternative, while federal law continues to list it as an illegal drug with the likes of heroin.

Often State laws better accommodate the needs in a particular State. But, when it comes to medicine and public health, we have two federal agencies that are specifically responsible for acting. The absence of objective research and findings by responsible agencies is problematic.

President Trump lost a brother to addiction and I suspect a number of Members of Congress have similar family histories. Little will be accomplished in the next eighteen months; political rivalries will paralyze. But, assuming that those elected did not campaign to be meaningless, bringing clarity to our conflicting cultural patterns and laws on cannabis would be something.

Perhaps, contingent on findings, the Surgeon General should begin a campaign against recreational use similar to the one it began decades ago against tobacco. At the same time, the chemicals of cannabis should be freed for medicinal research and development. And the Congress should make the hard decision on whether to nationalize marijuana laws or let them unfold on a state-by-state basis.

Additionally, lawmakers should be motivated by international commerce. Forbes notes that China has become a world powerhouse in cannabis research, holding more than half of the world’s 600 cannabis-related patents.  Israel currently has more than 110 clinical trials involving cannabis underway.

The Surgeon General and the Food and Drug Administration should orchestrate their work on cannabis-related health issues. And Congress should take action on conflicting laws that characterize marijuana as either criminal or just pleasurable. Pharmaceutical companies should be freed to engage in research and development. In short, America needs to get its act together.

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. 


Are Democrat Leaders Nuts? By Al Sikes


Stripping away any veneer that might still cling, politics is now overwhelmed by emotion, completely.

The national government is in charge of over $4 Trillion dollars (much of it funded by debt) in annual expenditures and many services that touch our lives daily. It is also in charge of our foreign relations and national security. The President is Commander-In-Chief.

There are a few challenges. They relate both too big strategic questions and day-to-day tactical ones. On any given day the White House will engage questions related to budgets, monetary policy, trade, North Korea, Venezuela and on and on.

Now, as I have made clear, I am not a Donald Trump fan. But I am a fan of America and what it is and can be. This latter affection makes me mad at today’s cage fight.

We have one President at a time. And this President has now been stripped down to bare wood. There is no veneer. There is nothing that even toadies like Sean Hannity can do to make the President look other than as he is. But, and this startles especially Democrats, he continues to have around 40% of the nation’s citizens support. His supporters wanted a President who was prepared to “give them hell,” almost regardless of the tactics.

The President is being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and prosecutors at the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. And in the past two years, Trump has been investigated by committees of the House and Senate.

Now various Democrat-led committees in the newly organized House of Representatives have decided that he has not been or being sufficiently investigated. Politico’s headline summed up what is going on:  “House Democrats prepare fusillade of Trump investigations.”

People know, voters know, Donald Trump. But, he remains the nation’s President. Putting the nation’s President in a further swirl of charges, subpoenas, hearings, and all the mechanisms of trial by fire will ill-serve America.

Make sure the investigations that are underway are not impeded. In the meantime, make the case for turning out Trump in November of 2020. The first primary to choose the Democratic nominee for President is less than a year away. If more independent voters see the House investigations as an extension of 2020 politics, the Democrat Party’s chance of winning goes down.

Let me offer what I am sure will be a second unwelcome recommendation. Democrat legislative leaders should begin hearings on various calls for a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Such hearings would do their Party a favor. They would be led by persons not running for President and would provide detail and argumentation about the way forward.

At present, there is a growing caucus attempting to convert their Party into the Utopian Party. The leaders, who have been elected, represent a minuscule population—Vermont and three or four Congressional districts. A Utopian Party candidate will not win.

Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, who is assessing an independent run, knows that and is waiting in the wings. Yet, the hard left of the Democrat Party seems not to want anybody with moderate views or any persons who at some point in the past have uttered or written what is now deemed unacceptable. Joe Biden, take notice.

It should be remembered that we are all human. And, a review of history chronicles the failure of utopianism, often in a conflagration. Similarly, a look back saddens us all as we note how few people transcended the culture of their time. It would be ironic indeed if the Democratic Party purged electable candidates because they erred in the past. Remember, millions of voters in 2016 were willing to vote for the President, notwithstanding a parade of regrettable statements and actions.

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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