Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mr. Nice Guy is not good enough



Published in the Bangkok Post: 15/08/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News

What is it about politics that makes it so hard to find a leader both decent and effective? Why is it so hard to find both qualities in one individual? If an electorate facing urgent problems must choose between a mild-mannered politician in service of the status quo, and an unpredictable Machiavellian manipulator, who offers the greater hope and who the greater liability?

A recent Thai Rath editorial compared current Thai PM Abhisit with fugitive former premier Thaksin, suggesting one man was clearly more decent, but the other more capable. The comparison ended with the lament about the difficulty of finding a leader who was both keng and dee (clever and good). Both terms are praiseworthy attributes, but the former is a kind of efficacious talent or power, the latter a rather more static moral quality.

To reduce complex, internally conflicted adult individuals to simple stereotypes of "clever" and "good" is to employ the language of the schoolyard to over-simplify things a bit. But it's a catchy media angle and it raises interesting questions.

Is the current prime minister being damned with faint praise when he is described as being good but essentially ineffective? Or is it a withering critique of Thaksin to portray him as rather more clever than good? What's better, what's worse?

The editorial gives both pols a slap in the face, suggesting that one is likable but lacking as a politician, the other not particularly likable but perhaps fit for politics. Is there something about the rough and rumble world of politics that makes the concept of a "good politician" an oxymoron? Is it really so hard to combine the two? The Thai dilemma has interesting parallels to the situation in America at the moment. What kind of man is President Obama, if not a nice man? He rode into office on a wave of niceness, he exuded a basic civility lacking in his opponents. And yet he increasingly is showing himself to be far more complex than nice.

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