Lessons from the Old Guard: Can Gen Y Best the Challenges that Bettered the Baby Boom?
January 18, 2012
JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us tonight for this talk with Brian Michael Till.
You'll hear a lot more about him in a moment, but first I want to tell you a little bit about our moderator this evening, Masha Feiguinova.
She is program officer at the Open Society Foundation. She oversees a really complex grant portfolio in Central Asia, with a focus on Turkmenistan. Before that, she was program director at Community HealthCorps, which is an AmeriCorps program here in New York City that focuses on public health. She holds a master's in philosophy in international relations from Cambridge. She went to SUNY undergrad, and she has been a member of our CNL steering committee for a couple of years. So we take advantage of her expertise all the time.
I can't wait to hear what she has in store for us, along with Brian Michael Till.
So take it away. Thank you so much.
MASHA FEIGUINOVA: My first job is to do justice to our speaker, so I will say a few words about him.
Brian is one of our nation's youngest syndicated columnists. His area of work includes international development, Middle East, and Latin American politics. He has reported from Argentina for Current TV and covered the Iraqi refugee crisis from Amman. He has worked for the Treatment Action Campaign, which is a South African HIV and AIDS initiative, and in disaster relief efforts in Panabaj, Guatemala.
Brian's opinion pieces on international and domestic issues have appeared in more than 30 publications. In conjunction with his writings, he has appeared on NPR's Talk of the Nation, in addition to local Philadelphia radio stations.
Before all that, when Brian was just beginning his work as a columnist and a researcher at the New America Foundation, he was certain that new leaders were failing to rise to the challenges of the century, and he set out to interview the former world leaders that he most admired.
He ended up interviewing some of the world's most esteemed former presidents and prime ministers, who, as a rule, are more likely to speak more candidly than their successors while they are in office. He soon found himself discussing the threats of terrorism and climate change, the shifting nature of leadership, and the role of women in the world with the likes of Clinton, Carter, Gorbachev, Havel, Cardoso, John Major, et cetera.
They all told him the ways that they saw the world change and remain the same, and gave their advice for political hopefuls in his generation and beyond.
With that, I'll turn it over to Brian.
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: It's one of these things where you hear the same intros very often. I have never heard that one. Some very diligent research.
I have spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks thinking about England in the early days of World War II, and I want to start there. It's this incredible time. There are all these refugees pushed from the continent, royalty and spies and everybody. A lot of them are holed up in just a couple of hotels in the West End, the Savoy, the Dorchester.
There's a working-class guy in his late 20s named Legg. He shows up for work. He's a little late. He gets up to the seventh floor of the Savoy, in this hot little room. He's working on the switchboard, pressed between two women. He takes a call. It's this very harsh military voice. He says, "Put me through to the Grill Room." He clicks it through. But he stays on the line and he listens.
The military voice says, "Give me Randolph."
The grill guy says, "Randolph who?"
He says, "Randolph Churchill."
The grill attendant goes into the bar, finds the drunkest, meanest guy there, dressed in a khaki uniform. Randolph comes and he takes the call.
The voice says, "Randolph, tomorrow at 9:00 am, the Germans will bomb Poland. England is at war. Your father wanted you to know."
So there's Legg sitting up there on the seventh floor, with his finger right over the switch. He knows something that maybe 1,000 people in the world know. Everybody hangs up.
The first thing he does is to dial his friend at the BBC. The friend picks up and that voice comes back on, this military voice, and says, "Be very careful. You're dealing with issues of national security right now."
The story has absolutely nothing to do with what I want to talk about tonight, but I love it because it speaks to something. It speaks to things that we feel, that we know at our core. It speaks to the moment when we hear it and when it becomes absolutely true. I think that's an important thing.
I want to speak first about why I went on this adventure. I want to speak about some of the things I have taken from these leaders. I want to speak about this generation, the young leaders and the way we think about leadership and maybe the way we need to be thinking about leadership.
This thing was really born almost exactly four years ago during the primaries, in New Hampshire and in Iowa and in these very small rooms. Campaigning for president is probably the most boring thing you can imagine. You have to be insane to do it. You really do. You watch the debates, and they say the same thing six times in a couple of hours. Imagine doing that all day, every day, for a year, a year-and-a-half.
It immediately became clear to me that you can't be honest. If you want to be elected president in this country, you can't tell the truth. The American public just doesn't want to hear it.
So that's where the idea came from to find former heads of state—the hope that they would be a little more candid, no longer wedded to aspirations and to political parties.
I can even trace it back farther than that, though. In 2004, I was a new student at Haverford. Just a couple of weeks before the election—I grew up in Vermont in a town without a stoplight. We're talking the middle of nowhere. It was the first time I saw a serious politician, a couple of weeks before the election. It was just this fervor, and John Edwards is there. He's not a tremendous candidate, but he was feeling it then. He was really in the swing of things. He had just recently had gotten nominated for the VP slot.
What struck me that day was almost nothing to do with Edwards, but it was the kids that were around me. I don't know if you guys know Haverford kids, but they're awkward. They are exceptionally bright and awkward kids. There was just this ravenous pulse amongst them. Most of these kids beforehand would have said, "John Edwards, not a big deal. He doesn't speak to my soul in any way." But in that moment, he was their god.
Václav Havel, who the world lost very recently, when I met him in Prague, said, "I've noticed that a politician always has a special halo around him. It has nothing to do with whether he's an idiot or if he's any good. It's just the position that gives someone that special aura."
He said, "I really started noticing this when I appointed my friend to be foreign minister. This is a guy I'd been in jail with and I'd known almost my whole life. But all of a sudden I started respecting him more. All of a sudden I started listening to him more carefully."
I think that speaks to this duality in the way this generation looks at politics. We can at once sit back and think these people are donkeys and fools—and in some cases they absolutely are. I imagine there are finance folks here. When we watch those incredible hearings with Geithner and Bernanke, some of these questions are just absolutely ridiculous. They are political posturing, but beneath them you get the sense these guys have no idea what's going on.
So we can have that, but then also, when we get in the room, we can have this other half of it and be totally enamored with them.
I'm going to take a lot of what's in the book [Conversations with Power: What Great Presidents and Prime Ministers Can Teach Us about Leadership] and just make it a given, which is dangerous. But I do want to speak about leadership and ethics, and to do that, you have to sort of have a sense of the worldview I took to make this book.
I think that climate change is real. I think it's very grave. I think we already see it accelerating conflicts and destabilizing the world.
When I asked Clinton about this, he said, "We might lose. Our minds may not expand enough collectively to avert the worst, and the population of this earth could drop off substantially in the next couple hundred years."
I think that's true.
I think that we find it very easy to forget that having $2,100 puts you in the richest half of people in this world, that 46 million people are on food stamps.
There's going to be a lot of Havel tonight, too. Havel was a rich kid. He was even alienated by his wealth. He was this small, inward, brilliant guy. His father was a restaurateur and developer. He was kind of liberated when the Communists came to power. All of a sudden the rich people had their homes confiscated. They were pushed out of Prague.
Havel found this new life and this new confidence. He slipped into the playwriting, the late-night drinking. But the more interesting thing to me is after he managed to topple that machine, after the Velvet Revolution, and he is president. He has a sense that there's something else afoot, that there are bigger currents at play even than that.
He wrote an incredible essay on transcendentalism. He says, "I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Today many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on its way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from that rubble."
Really, what he was speaking to was this world in postmodernism, putting science and logic and Enlightenment ideas in the place of god, in a lot of ways.
He said, "The relationship to the world that modern science fostered and shaped now appears to have exhausted its potential. It is increasingly clear that, strangely, the relationship is missing something. It fails to connect the most intrinsic nature of reality with natural human experience. It is now more a source of disintegration and doubt than a source of meaning. It produces what amounts to a state of schizophrenia. Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being."
"It fails to connect the most intrinsic nature of reality with the natural human experience." I think a lot of us, if we had had the privilege to travel through the Third World, one of the things that you observe so quickly and that you are almost afraid to speak about—it feels imperial and sort of chauvinistic—is that there's this energy; there's this happiness in these places. People are living at the margins of life, watching their kids die around them sometimes. But there is something immensely powerful there.
One of my early stops was in Helsinki, with Martti Ahtisaari—great president, Nobel laureate. It's not in the book because I had no idea what I was doing yet, but I'll never forget him telling me something.
He said, "I have a problem in my own society. People are not feeling well. We have to look carefully at what we can do. I think we have to see why, in a society where you enjoy perhaps the best education and excellent health care and all the legal protection, you still have an alarmingly large group of people who are not able to cope, because that should not be the price of development." The price of development.
You know that Time magazine cover from the late 1960s? It's amazing. It's iconic. It's black and it's red and it says in huge letters, "Is God Dead?"
If you take that proposition that he or she, or whatever it is, might be, I think it's important for us to think about what has replaced it, and the way that has changed society, the way it has changed the leadership, the way it has changed the ethics of leadership.
One of the things that came up so many times that I had to start clipping it out of interviews because it would just get boring to read it again and again is that the greatest leaders have always thought in generations. They manage to see over the horizon in a way that almost everyone else can't.
John Major said, "Whenever I consider a policy, I stop and I put myself ten years down the line and I think about how it looks from that vantage."
I think it's probably the reason that he, above all, kept Britain out of the euro zone. He, with a two-vote margin in the Parliament, both of which were Irish Unionists, decided to tackle the Irish peace process. And Clinton has said that he really thinks Major deserves the credit that he never got for that.
Society changed, and the way we lead changed with it. I think if we still had that ethos at the center of our leaders' minds—thinking about decades, if not generations—it's impossible that you end up with a $14 trillion debt. It's impossible that you end up with Detroit 50 percent illiterate, with high schools across the country failing minority kids at such an incredible rate.
One of the things Clinton has started arguing—and it always makes you feel so good when Bill Clinton is arguing something that you were arguing before him, even if he does it so much better than you were doing it—is that this country has to become much more communitarian if we're going to succeed.
If you look at business, we have taken the long-term stakeholders—the employees of companies, the pensioners, the communities that have made tremendous concessions to attract business and keep business—and we have really taken their views and devalued them. And the people with the shortest-term interest in a corporation—the shareholders, who could be gone tomorrow, executives, who could oftentimes amass enough wealth in four or five years to be done with the company and secure financially for the rest of their lives—those are the people that call the shots now.
I think at the center where god used to be is something we have the challenge of rewriting. It's something that says shareholder value is all that matters, and it is, in fact, unethical if you don't put that first. It says that you will do whatever it takes to get reelected every two years, and you will not work with the opposition for fear that that will prevent you from getting reelected.
That's no small task, reimagining the way we lead. It's even harder with that debt. It's even harder with a world that would become more and more unstable.
I think our generation is super-interesting. We love structure. We love rules. It lets us sort of navigate and get the A and do really well, without maybe working as hard as we should.
We are also very wedded to a couple of ideas. One is something that Ronald Reagan just seared into this national character, the idea that government has to be failing. It's inherently inept. I think government is actually probably the best thing, the most important thing that we have created. It gives the space to do anything of value, to create wealth.
Ahtisaari said that in post-conflict situations the most important thing you have to do, as quickly as you can, is get business law in place. That blew my mind. Where you don't see effective law, where you don't see great government, what is that? It's the vacuums. It's Somalia. It's the northwest of Pakistan. How did the Taliban get their legitimacy in that part of the world? By doling out justice. As perverted as it was, it was better than navigating those corrupt and failing courts.
The last thing I want to read to you guys is this incredible essay. It's called "Solitude and Leadership." It's by a guy named William Deresiewicz, who taught at Yale, teaching English for roughly the last ten years. He has had a really good window to this generation, to the way we think, to our weaknesses, to our strengths.
He says, "So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, 'excellent sheep.' I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law, Johns Hopkins Medical School, Goldman, McKinsey, whatever."
He writes, "We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don't know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don't know how to set them. Who can think about how to get things done, but not whether they're worth doing in the first place. What we have now is the greatest generation of technocrats the world has ever seen."
And it's true. There's something about that, though, that actually gives me hope. One of the other things we do is, we trust data. We trust the cloud. We trust information.
When we set to work on this, I think it will take a generation that says, "We have let absurd social issues divide us and stifled all forward momentum. We're going to put those aside and trust data and look at what works and what doesn't."
I want to speak just briefly about some of the really big things I have taken from them.
Something that came up again and again is the idea of introspection, that the pace with which we live prevents us from ever really leading well. John Major said, "You have to keep a hinterland. If you're too busy, it will not only affect you and your judgment, but it will absolutely drive you insane."
Obama said, "I've taken from the Clinton people that one of the things I have to do is have big chunks of the day where there's just time to think."
Cameron says, "I absolutely agree. We call it the dentist's office. They just chalk you up in 15-minute bursts."
Obama says back, "Yes, and it starts to affect you and the way you go about trying to make change."
I think it's likely that Obama failed to take his own advice.
One of my favorite guys in the book is an Australian, Paul Keating. He's the last chapter. He's sort of this sharp-elbowed parliamentarian. He would refuse to go on trips. He would just blatantly not listen to his staff sometimes, because he was so intent on carving out time for himself. He took six hours every Saturday and just listened to classical music. He worships Mendelssohn and Chopin. He would imagine himself, before he went into the Parliament, as Zeus hurling lightning bolts while he was listening to Ride of the Valkyries.
Again and again it comes up that you have to listen so much more than you think. Cardoso, this Brazilian who kept the country from having a huge AIDS epidemic, who beat back hyperinflation and got it to become a BRIC nation, said, "You have to listen to people's anxieties, and those often go unsaid."
The last one I'll give you is that the modern era demands that you communicate without reprieve. We're in touch with each other all the time, and we expect a leader that does exactly that.
This generation has, I think, a very clear choice. I think all of us here worked hard enough and were born wealthy enough that we can continue this, that we can live the way we have, really, to the end of our lives. But we'll get a call, I think, before the end of our lives, and we'll find out that the currents we felt have indeed washed over us and that change is no longer possible.
Thank you. Let's do questions. I promise I'll draw more from them as we talk.
MASHA FEIGUINOVA: Thank you. That was fascinating.
In preparing for this talk, I decided to take a quick look at what some of the people who have read your book and have reviewed your book have been saying about it. I selected a quote from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, in part because it's quite a compliment to the book to have her review and comment on it, but also her question packs a punch, as one would expect.
The quotation that I found is, "Conversations with Power reflects"—I'm paraphrasing—"a quest for knowledge and reassurance from a fascinating array of past leaders. The result is not only a revealing set of lessons about the possibilities and the limitations of power; it is also a challenge to the new generation to take the future into its own hands."
My question is, if she's right, if this was a quest for knowledge and reassurance, have you gotten any reassurance, and where do you find it?
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: That's one of those things where you read it and you're, like, is that backhanded? Is that totally backhanded?
I think the assurance that I got is, no, I'm not crazy. Above all, the question I asked them was, did this generation fail? We look at nuclear proliferation. We look at this hugely imbalanced global economy that I think will continue to boom and bust and undermine itself, and so we iron it out. We look at climate change. We look at so many things, and we feel like we got nowhere in the post-Cold War years. Overwhelmingly, they say, yes, this was an incredible moment, and we let it slip through our fingers.
Keating said, "This was the first moment of "strategic still" since the beginning of the First World War, and we really could have reimagined the way states interact with each other, but we didn't. We completely missed the opportunity."
I think that's true. I have been reading a lot of George Kennan lately. I think a lot of people have. One of the things that is so clear in all of his writings—he's obviously the architect of containment and a brilliant thinker about foreign policy—was that the United States had locked itself in this mindset of the Cold War.
It's something that Helmut Schmidt, this old West German chancellor—this guy's amazing. He's 92, maybe 93 now. He smokes a cigarette every ten minutes, all day, every day. He's in a wheelchair. His doctors have said, "If you stop smoking, it will probably kill you."
He said, "You don't even see it, the extent to which you are still locked in this category of friend and foe with Russia—and, in fact, the whole world."
I think it's true. A lot of the conversation with Gorbachev and Gro [Harlem Brundtland] sort of comes around to this realization that there was a tremendous moment when we could have backed Gorbachev, in June of 1990, and even earlier, when he came hat in hand looking for help, saying he had opened the political system. The media was incredibly vibrant at that point. We turned him away.
I think in that moment were the portents of not only a lot of conflicts we see today, but also the guarantee that we couldn't tackle these global challenges, because we were still so wedded to thinking about the world through this Westphalian lens of states and their interests and their antagonisms towards one another.
MASHA FEIGUINOVA: Questions from the audience?
QUESTION: First of all, I'm looking forward to reading the book. I think it's fascinating.
You mentioned Reagan and Gorbachev and the sense of leadership, and nuclear proliferation or nonproliferation. In fact, they had a moment, as you know, in Reykjavik, where it just went through their fingers. I just completed a documentary, and there is a sequence in the film about that. It's yet another example of two men who were well aware of what they could have done, and didn't.
I'm going to pose a question to you now. What do you think the dynamic is underlying the sense of stasis in terms of, beyond what you have already outlined, why the leaders of today can't seem to move away from this?
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: I think it's as much tied up in us as any of them. I think we really have stopped believing that change is possible. I see an odd conservatism in this generation that I think is going to continue. We are, at once, so open-minded about sexuality and all these things, but we're still very conservative in odd ways.
I think that, in terms of the leaders, we are really constrained by American politics. If American politics was a little smarter, I think we could get a long, long way on nonproliferation and climate change, too. But as long as we have this completely stalled and broken system that we are working with now, I think we're in a lot of trouble.
Again and again, Schmidt—if I could make America read one chapter, it would be Helmut Schmidt; he's so antagonistic. One of the things he says is, "Look, your country is different from every democracy in the world, in that your president—there's so much responsibility heaped on him or her, but they are also very often unable to control the Congress."
In a parliamentarian system, you inherently have a majority. That's why you're the prime minister. Everything that goes right or wrong, the Labor Party or Conservative Party owns all of those decisions, and profits or failures, for the tenures that they are in power.
There are tremendous reasons why they built the system that we have. But today it is absolutely preventing us from getting things done that we really need to. So I think American domestic politics is why we're not getting very far on many of the global issues.
QUESTION: I just want to follow up on that comment. In your opinion, is it actually the system that's in place or is it the mindset of the people that are a part of the system, that are participating in the system?
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: You mean as a public or as elected officials?
QUESTIONER: The government.
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: There's a great rep for Massachusetts, whose name is totally escaping me now. He has been there for 35 years. He did a tremendous lecture at Harvard Law School, just looking at the way he has seen the institution change over his life.
One of the biggest things he can point to as to why it's completely dysfunctional now as opposed to when he first got there is because these people don't know each other. It used to be that you moved to Washington and you moved your family to Washington. Your kids went to school together and you stayed up late at night and got drunk with each other. You were genuinely friends.
But now, because we live with such pace, because there is this constant need for information and handholding, you have to go home on the weekends. You are really frowned upon if you actually want to move to Washington. So there just aren't the working relationships that there used to be, I think, in national governance, which is a huge problem.
I see it, too, getting worse before it gets better. Two years ago this week, Citizens United was handed down. That was a huge decision. That was massive. But the fate in terms of money in politics, was written years before. It was in 1976, a case called Buckley v. Valeo. That's when we first decided that freedom of speech was the same thing as spending money in elections. Brennan was the chief justice at that point.
Years later he was at Oxford, and someone said, "Brennan, what's your greatest mistake?"
He didn't miss a beat. He said, "Buckley."
That's a big one. That's the biggest one. If we change the way people think about that—or take the way I think most people already think about that and make it manifest in politics, we'll be in much better shape.
QUESTION: You mentioned that we are creating the greatest technocrat generation. I'm curious. I have my own ideas, but what do you think we need to do to change, to become once again a generation that is creating the greatest leaders?
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: I think a lot of it is imagination and introspection. How often are you sitting around with friends and you think of some great business idea, and you're like, if it would work, someone would have done it already? We're just convinced that the structures in place are absolutely stuck there, and if it could work, it would have worked already. It just denies how much agency we have —in politics, in business, just across the board.
I just chased this thing. It was absolutely insane to be at New America and be, like, I'm going to go do this book. I'm going to go sit down with former presidents. Everybody's looking at me, like, "Nobody's going to talk to you. Who are you kidding?"
It's very hard in a financial collapse to do that, to just chase after something. That's part of our conservatism, too, I think. We like security. We have grown up comfortable, and a lot of us are just looking for the easiest course to maintain that.
There are really interesting numbers that Gorbachev referenced all the time out of Russia. So much of the Russian youth just wants to go work for the state bureaucracy. It's safe. It's secure. You have influence. You look at that and you're, like, that's pathetic, that's awful. But if you think about it a little harder, it's not dissimilar to what we are chasing after. The jobs we want to have those same things aren't the same state bureaucratic jobs, but—I think we have to believe that all of these things can change, and we have to chase it.
QUESTION: I enjoyed your talk very much, but there's another Generation Y. Only one out of four of your Generation Y actually has a four-year degree. The majority of people in your age group barely graduate college. What is your take on the other Generation Y, the ones that didn't live a comfortable life? What's their direction?
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: It's huge. Schmidt again said, "Listen, by the mid-century, blacks and Latinos are going to make up half your country. They are going to demand opportunities that you are just not affording them—citizenship, for one, reasonable paying jobs." It's a huge deal. It's one of these huge currents, and we are not even sensing yet just how dangerous and divisive it can be.
You have Newt the other night—"99 weeks of unemployment. You should have an associate's degree."
I'm pretty sure it's not for lack of want that a lot of people in this generation don't have terrific academic credentials.
I was incredibly lucky. My dad was a working-class kid and he started saving the moment—I'll never forget, when he was 45, being, like, "I finished paying for med school today." I was just appalled. But that was the decision he had made. The day that each of his kids were born, he started saving for them to go to college.
The structural violence of this country is unbelievable. It's absolutely unbelievable. It may be a big part of why Obama gets reelected. But it also may be the reason that this country comes very close to pulling apart at the seams in my lifetime.
QUESTION: How do you feel about the way a democracy works? Do you feel that it works when you have half of the individual voters actually not being educated or being educated by sound bites? Over and over again I will ask somebody else—the taxicab driver or somebody—I'll say, "Well, what do you think about this?" They will tell me the headline that they read that day. That's the extent of their thought process.
How can you have a democracy work when they have that same right as you do, who has studied all this?
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: It was one of the big questions that I asked a number of them: Did the technological revolution, this incredible wave of mass communication evolution, actually make democracy harder? Is that possible? It remains as hard as it ever was before to fully understand any of these issues. But to convince people they get it, to scare the hell out of them, and then for those voices to reverberate is so easy now. Overwhelmingly they say we haven't cracked the code on this yet.
A number of them said, "But you're going to be better at it than we are."
Again and again you feel these leaders putting faith in this generation, and you are sort of staring back at them, on one hand, like, "You're totally just glad-handing me, and you're such a pol." But at the same point, it might be true.
But news being broken is the second component, second to political money, I think. Jimmy Carter and I talked about this a lot. He was there as a lot of it was happening. He went from having just Cronkite, who was trusted, whom people respected, to the advent of CNN as he was on his way out.
I don't know how we beat that. Again, why? Why do they make the news they make? Because it's absolutely profitable.
I had a great Canadian roommate in South Africa. He said, "Do you ever watch Canadian news?"
I said, "On occasion."
He was, like, "Yes, because it's so boring."
It's phenomenal news, though.
But it comes back to something about ethics. The fact that you have the Murdochs up there just evading—they are not going to take any responsibility for that stuff. It's not just the financial CEOs who aren't going to take any responsibility for that stuff. But if there was sort of an ethic at the center of news media that said, "We need to teach this country," it would change news pretty quickly.
But I don't see it there. Until we sort of reimagine what should be at the center of our lives, I don't think it will change.
QUESTION: Building on that, thinking about policy and innovation, when it comes to innovation, there is always the risk of failure. What you are suggesting is thinking out of the box and changing the way we interact with each other and even the way we hold governments accountable and what we demand from our politicians. I think that's the fine line that politicians might end up walking.
How do you innovate, with the risk of failure, when, as a public figure, you may not have the ability to have such a leeway with failure? What's your thought on innovation and failure?
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: One of the things Clinton said that I really liked was he said that Machiavelli got it right centuries ago. Change is hard, because those who stand to lose are very certain of their loss and those who stand to gain are entirely uncertain of the gain. Innovation is a dangerous business.
But lot of it comes back to the fact that I think things will get much worse before they get better. In that moment, I don't think it takes tremendous renovations to the country. I think it takes a public demanding that government work better. I think it takes a bipartisan cohort that says we need to change campaign finance. We don't need to change the entire committee structure or the fact that the president is separate from the Congress.
But I think it's our duty—a lot of us—to stretch what people think is possible and stretch the way they think about what we might need, knowing that you won't get anywhere near all of it.
But I think it is. It's small changes that are pretty post-partisan that I think will get us, hopefully, where we need to be.
QUESTION: May I ask a follow-up on that? As a young person, what do you think are the tools that you would suggest that we use to encourage innovation in government?
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: Gro Brundtland is one of my favorite people in the book. She's a physician. She was Norwegian prime minister, ran the World Health Organization, twice prime minister, a special envoy for climate change now. While she was prime minister, her son committed suicide. She said, "You know, when I agreed to be a minister of the environment in 1974, the questions I asked myself were, can I do this job? Am I good enough? It was never about, my family is going to be under assault all day, every day."
She said, "I can't tell any of my kids to go into politics. It is against everything I believe, but I honestly can't tell them that they should do that."
There have been a couple of girls in the last four years or so who have absolutely gotten ravaged trying to seek public office, a girl in Rhode Island, a girl who ran for national office in Northern Virginia. I didn't agree with them at all. I didn't agree with a single thing they were espousing. But they got Gawkered. They just dredged up pictures from old Halloween things like that and plastered them all over the Internet.
All of us have that. All of us have these digital pasts and miserable things about us. But the tool to change this stuff—you have to run. All of us, seriously, have a duty to try to get in there. It sucks. Nobody wants to do that. It doesn't pay well. It's going to be ugly. It's going to be boring. But it's very clear to me that that is the way. Talking to people, the conversations we have with each other matter a great deal.
It's this axiom of American life: no politics or religion at the dinner table. That's just something we decided. That's part of our national character. You have to. You have to have these conversations—gently. We're also not good about talking about ideas. It's what I believe—"well, I just think this." So the conversations we have with each other matter a great deal. Continuing these sort of siloed political dialogues isn't good enough. That's a huge piece.
But you also have to do it. If you want to be an agent for change, you have to throw yourself into the grinder and know what it will entail, but do it anyway, I think.
QUESTION: I have two questions. The first one is, I wondered what your pitch was to these leaders, what your case was for having them let you interview them.
Also, you said you went into it thinking that these former leaders would be more candid. I wonder if, in fact, you saw them reveal their fallibilities, their mistakes, or whether you ran into people who never let their guard down and still it seemed like they were delivering a little bit their political kind of canned speech.
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: It's easier to get a lot of them than I expected. You start small. But once you're out of power, what do you really want to do? You want to make a bunch of money, you want to try to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and you want to secure your legacy. More often than not, you sit down with them and they say, "Who are you? What are we doing?" It's just navigating sort of the bureaucracy around them. You send them chapters. You send them questions. You sort of throw it all out the window and just ask whatever you want to ask.
But a lot of them are sitting around and do have time to talk about the thing they love, which is politics.
In terms of sort of canned, de Klerk felt canned to me. It was early, and I wasn't as good as I should have been yet. But he is someone that has his narrative, the way that history is with him.
He should have never been the guy that dismantled apartheid. His grandfather had been golfing buddies with Kruger, sort of the patron saint of the South African state. His uncle had been prime minister for a bit. His dad had held multiple cabinet posts. He was the consummate son of apartheid. Even early in his career it was very clear that he was a party man, to an extent. But he saw the tide and he saw the currents around him. He and Nelson Mandela shepherded that country to something incredible compared to how disastrous it could have been.
But there are all these journalists that want to puncture the shield and be, like, "I'm the one that showed that F.W. de Klerk really is this racist pig."
You can go around and around with him about decisions he made as minister of sports or minister of education. That didn't feel like a real good use of time for me. But I still felt that his answers weren't as candid as they could have been.
Other than that, I felt like they were pretty astoundingly open. Barak, in more places than others. But he's a sitting defense minister in Israel, so it's sort of par for the course.
QUESTION: You mentioned data in your intro, and that we trust data. But I would like your thoughts, because I kind of have a reverse opinion, that people use data to reinforce whatever their opinion is, in particular the previous administration. How do you reconcile that data is something that we're so heavily relying on, when it's actually, in fact, just a random theory of whatever that we're relying on and then we're just overlaying the data on top to match it?
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: You have data, opinion, and anecdote, as kind of the three you could go from. I read about this in the intro. I think part of the reason so many just completely retreat from politics is that that information revolution that should have made it really easy to get data and know what's true, in fact, feels like it has done the opposite. It feels like it's harder and there's more stuff you have to dredge through to get even close to truth.
One thing I would love them to do is open the Congressional Research Service, which is a phenomenal apolitical think tank in the Congress. Most of these people won't take the time to actually read the bills or are not legally sophisticated enough, and so there are these incredible reports, these five- or ten-page reports on anything you want—foreign policy, domestic policy. That would be phenomenal.
But you also see more and more PolitiFact, people springing up to fill that space. But inevitably it will also be not only data, but the credibility of the institution producing the data. Is it Brookings or is it some other—I didn't say it.
QUESTION: You talked about the tendency of our generation—I'm probably a few years older than you, but I'll put us in the same boat—to take basically the predictable course and to stay within the confines of the institution. For me, it doesn't resonate with, I guess, one of the images that America has of itself as an entrepreneurial nation. This is where the immigrants of the world come and find themselves or develop themselves. You said that you come from a working-class background, and here you are interviewing Clinton. That's a huge leap in one generation.
I'm wondering if you think that some of us are fortunate enough to be the exception to the rule, but the country is sliding down. Or is it? I guess I just want to get some of your thoughts on this, because it's an interesting proposition.
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: Yes, the American myth is a very strong one. I think it often isn't compatible with the reality. There's actually a great Cambridge economist, whose name is escaping me now. He's fantastic. He writes all about how America thinks it's so entrepreneurial, but, in fact, when you go out into the Third World, those are the entrepreneurs.
I just read a really good book called The Stealth of Nations. It's all about shadow economies, not arms dealing and prostitution, just trillions of dollars of small goods and things like that, and people finding ways to squeak by as entrepreneurs.
I think we think of Silicon Valley and massive tech entrepreneurs, but it's a bigger principle than that.
But, yes, I think the U.S. economy went from so industrial—those jobs inevitably follow lower wages when you open trade. We shifted a lot of it to the housing market, and boom! So there's this huge question of what America is going to make or invent or be, with that middle-tier economic worker. We don't know. We have no idea. But I'll tell you this. If his or her son is less educated than they are, which is very possible at this point, it's going to be even harder to find them jobs.
Again and again, in my mind, it comes back to health care and education. Can we get those two things right? As a secondary, campaign finance, and news—once we sort of get the government working, those are things we really have to tackle. Time is of the essence.
QUESTION: First of all, I'll confirm what you said about the Carter years, because I lived through that when I was in Washington, in news, network news, and saw that whole thing happen—and also the whole hostage crisis story. But the question I have for you is, when you came up with this idea to start on this journey to where you are today, what was the biggest shock to you that you discovered in talking to these folks?
BRIAN MICHAEL TILL: In general, in these years of being in D.C. and being surrounded in a think tank world and meeting all these people, I think the fact is that the threads that hold it all together—sort of the American machine—are thinner than many of us would like to think. We have the sense that the security and the safety of this society is ours. It's indelible. It's as much as ours as anything. I don't think it's true. I don't think it's true at all.
That said, I'm totally long on the United States. I think we have the capacity, an incredible imagination when we tap into it, and I think it's going to work. But it's going to be blood, sweat, and tears for a while first.
MASHA FEIGUINOVA: On that note, thank you.