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Bob Franken: Shutting out the contrarians

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At least all this lunacy over the David Petraeus affair does serve one purpose: It reminds us once again about the foolishness of idealizing our national leaders. They are merely fallible human beings. They take their pants off just like the rest of us.

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Petraeus and his biographer/paramour Paula Broadwell are just the latest whose high-level hanky-panky has caused a frenzy by media fixated on titillation. And inevitably, like others in their elite game, whether players or groupies, they’re being shredded in the news grinder.

David and Paula (I assume they call each other by their first names in private) have lots in common. They are great networkers. Brilliant or not, Petraeus excelled at self-promotion and the schmoozing arts, and she has been no slouch. Whatever their other talents, they built their careers on connections (let’s dispense with the jokes, they’re too easy).

Petraeus, after all, married the West Point superintendent’s daughter. He was not only someone who had mentors who were “like a father” to him, he had a father-in-law. As for Broadwell, she had a general, David Petraeus. She adored him, and he adored being adored. Both of them relied on one of humankind’s most potent weapons, and that is flattery. It is particularly effective at the top echelons of our society, because so many of those who occupy their lofty perches wonder in their heart of hearts if they are really qualified to be there. Washington is crawling with them.

By the way, some of the most successful people cozy up to journalists. We are particularly susceptible because of our own insecurities, so when we get attention from a leader, our hearts go pitter-patter. Petraeus has been a major-league reporter cultivator, dealing with even those of us who are minor-leaguers.

The Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan is another who fits this profile. Whatever abilities he brought into his upward climb, he made sure that on every rung of the ladder, he became close to those who could give him a push. In college, he was the one who ingratiated himself to the professor by constantly stopping in his office. In politics, he attached himself to the likes of the late Jack Kemp. He’s a natural. His high-school classmates voted him the “Biggest Brown-Noser.”

What a useful talent. One of the abiding rules in the nation’s capital was authored by the legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who said, “If you want to get along, go along.” They named a congressional building after him.

What’s insidious about that concept is that it shuts out the contrarians. The independent thinkers get shoved aside if they insist on pushing their alternative ideas or warn against the dangers of prevailing practices. They are labeled “troublemakers,” and often are ostracized. So, creative, fresh approaches to problems are stifled. Those in charge consider them a challenge to their power.

It is one of the major reasons our institutions, public and private, run out of steam. Vital organizations too often calcify because bold insights are a threat to those who benefit from the status quo. So they surround themselves with sycophants.

If the toadies’ patrons falter, they usually just latch on to another one. Theirs may be a house of cards, but often they can dwell in it for a lifetime of success. Only every once in a while does it collapse, usually by accident.

How pathetic that enforced conformity grips a country founded by revolutionaries. The nation they created with their courageous impertinence is now struggling. Clearly, the path to renewal is not the one trodden by the insiders, whose specialty is stroking.

We need to encourage the individuals who stand out as they offer new directions, even when they make those in power uncomfortable. Otherwise, our direction will continue to be down.

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Bob Franken is a former CNN correspondent. He can be contacted by email at bob@bobfranken.tv.

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