Pardon me for a bit of presumptuousness, but Ron Fournier seems like the kind of guy you want to share a beer with in a Mackinac Island bar.
Now, I don’t know the guy personally. I, like most people, follow him on social media (where he’s consistently hilarious, intellectual and sensitive on Twitter – no easy feat) and I read his stuff. He’s the Everyman – interested in life, current events, family matters, politics, American society and so much, much more.
Take his most recent column for example for The Atlantic – it isn’t a cold editorial look at the Cincinnati Zoo debacle between a young boy who got into the silver back gorilla’s enclosure. It is a measured response, enumerated with ways he feels about what happened to that beautiful creature, that little boy, that family. He talks about how he, too, as a parent has a story of when his kids were put in personal harm’s way because of him. It is a topic that if you could get a parent in a honest place, they, too, would have their tale to tell (I’m one of them).
But I digress. Fournier was kind enough to talk a little about his career, his Michigan background, his interest in all the things and his new book, “Love That Boy” to highlight his keynote speech Thursday for the Mackinac Policy Conference.
As background, Fournier is the senior political columnist for the National Journal. He began his family and career in Arkansas, covering then Governor Bill Clinton before moving to Washington in 1993, where he covered politics and the presidency during the administrations of Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Fournier also served as a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, where he co-wrote the New York Times bestseller “Applebee’s America.” He holds the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for coverage of the 2000 elections, and he is a four-time winner of the prestigious White House Correspondents’ Association Merriman Smith Memorial Award.
Q: Michigan is in the midst of some huge issues now that are likely to affect others cities, including water quality in Flint and schools in Detroit. What do you think the rest of the nation could learn from the challenges facing our urban centers?
A: First, there are the obvious lessons: Leaders of government but be more closely connected to the people, more accountable, less short-sighted. Most mistakes made in politics and government today can be traced to a mentality that places “winning” the immediate news cycle or the next election over a broader, long-term good.
Second, Flint is a harsh reminder that we must totally transform the way we govern for the 21st century. In a column I wrote for The Atlantic titled “How to Prevent the Next Flint,” I quoted a local man complaining about the fact that tests of public water systems are not made public for weeks or months, if ever, even under the best of circumstances. He called that an example of a bigger problem and said of my quest for a better way to govern: “To start with, let me see my damn tests.”
Quoting from that column now: “Maybe there’s a better way. What if governments immediately posted water test results on a website open to the public? What if citizens and citizen activists were encouraged to add their water test results to the public platform, creating a muscular database that anybody could use to spot trends and raise alarms? What if government offered prizes and other incentives to any bureaucrat, business person, citizen activist or parent who creates a solution to the present water crisis or develops a better approach, in general, to protecting Flint’s water?”
The paternalistic approach to government has run its course, and not just in Flint. Averting such crises requires re-inventing government—not to be smaller or bigger, but to be more efficient and connected to a tech-empowered public, where mutual transparency and data sharing can leverage the wisdom of crowds.
Q: What have you learned about what makes for an effective President or other leaders that could benefit the people who attend the Mackinac Policy Conference?
A: It starts with trust, which is why the 2016 election is so depressing. For various reasons and to different degrees, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton can’t be trusted – and aren’t trusted by supermajorities of voters. Relatedly, their favorability ratings are the lower than any two major party nominees in the modern era. This is an unpopularity contest.
Twenty-first century voters, particularly millennials, are shaped by the times – an era of extraordinary economic, technological, and demographic change. Those forces are driving people to seek certain attributes in their leaders: a strong sense of purpose, transparency, authenticity, and effectiveness. We want leaders who will bring radical change to social institutions, making them relevant again – a buffer against the swift currents of change.
Some leaders are embracing disruption. Look what’s happened this past decade to the retail, entertainment, financial and media industries. What about government and politics? Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are just the first sign of disruption to the political system. Buckle up: much, much more is coming.
Q: What have you learned about yourself as a writer, journalist and father since publishing “Love That Boy” in terms of how you approach people and, in particular, people in power?
A: It reminded me that I cover people, not titles. That I can be skeptical without being cynical. That I can rail against a rotten system without suggesting that everybody in the system stinks. On page 146 of “Love That Boy,” I confess that I was surprised when Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush agreed to meet privately with my son Tyler. “I’m not sure why they agreed to do this. While I respect both men, I never spared my criticism during their presidencies, and now, retired from elected office, neither Clinton nor Bush, would expect their favors returned. I chalked it up to something you don’t hear much about in politics: decency. Like most politicians, they former presidents are public servants at their core. Far from perfect (as journalists like me never fail to point out), most men and women who enter politics are fundamentally good people in a bad system,” I wrote. “But that’s another book.”