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Archive for September, 2008

Patriotism For the Common Era

Monday Morning, September 28, 2008

We’ve been through more than one national crisis.  They tell us we are in another.  Thanks to round the clock cable news, we’ve grown accustomed to a close up view of natural disasters – earthquakes on the other side of the globe, hurricane force winds, storm surges and rivers overflowing their banks.  And then there are the failures of man-made structures and systems – bridges that collapse and trains collide and airplanes fall from the sky.  If there’s not a network crew handy to deliver in high definition, someone with a cell phone camera in video mode is.  The images are splotchy and jerky, but we get the idea.

Sometimes I wonder if this overexposure to global tragedy is really helpful.  Yes, it triggers relief efforts and generosity; but are we perhaps numbed to the reality of disaster when we are immersed in a steady stream of virtual images?   And now, after all the unexpected challenges on our national timeline (at Arrow, we call that a Suffograph), we’ll add one more.  This one is perhaps the most ominous of them all – the complete collapse of our financial system.  Our leaders have even conjured up images of The Great Depression. 

As our politicians wrangle over a bailout plan, and as our two parties clash night after night trading punches and body blows and verbal grenades, our fighting men and women carry on in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  I continue to marvel at the level of commitment these men and women and their families display below the radar of national attention.  Even the most ardent critics of the war effort are careful to point out that our military personnel are worthy of praise for their sacrifice.  Most of them, as I see it, aren’t in it for praise.  I come to that conclusion because I’ve talked to a few of them myself; most notably my two nephews.  They wear the uniform, having survived the intense training and preparation, and now enter into the fray as young men just plain willing to serve.

My two brothers and their good wives come from my generation (well, almost my generation) when our view of public service fell somewhat short of the benchmark laid before their two sons.  As I spoke to a long-time friend and contemporary last night, the father of yet another Marine, our memories of anti-war protests on the campus and weakened Presidents (Johnson and Nixon then Ford and Carter) and flag burnings that matched flaming draft documents are still fresh in our minds.  It doesn’t seem that long ago… not to us, anyway. 

But now my brothers and several of my friends have sons and daughters who have answered the call to duty with remarkable character and inner strength.  This is no computer game for them.  They are quite aware of the dangers and the risks.  They know about the political controversies.  But it’s a matter of pride.  Duty.  Family.  Country.  When Sarah Palin called for prayer in that church video, and her words were twisted by some to make it sound like she was advocating some kind of holy war and cheering on some sort of Pentecostal theocracy.  These guys knew better.   War is not a sadistic game or an exercise in religious conquest.  It’s the inescapable consequence of human conflict.   Some are called upon to protect and defend.   They rise to the occasion.

So yesterday, we sent off one of those brave Marines, Corporal Barrett Kemp, to his second tour of duty with his Battalion 1 / 4.   They ship off to Iraq in a matter of days.   He joins his cousin 2nd Lieutenant Timothy Kemp.   Barrett (we call him Bear) explained to me that his hero is the biblical character, David, who did not fall back when the call came.  His first test came along when as a young man, no military training, made the rather audacious claim that the giant Goliath ought not be feared.  “Who will take him on?”  None in Israel stepped up.  Until David.  He volunteered.  Fearless.

So Bear doesn’t have illusions of grandeur.  He just thinks that someone has to step up.  And Tim feels the same.  The sacrifice is real.  Tim is a new dad.  He leaves behind his son and his wife, Anna.  And a praying family.

So here we are, leaders one and all, reading headlines that scream doom.  We know the world is a dangerous place.  Guarantees are hard to come by. 

But as Pastor Phil pointed out just this morning – “Tell me when there was a time when there was no corruption.  No natural disasters.  No threat of the proliferation of war.  No ‘white-collar’ crime.  No fraud.  No market manipulations.  Tell me when?”

There was muffled laughter at the question – mainly because there has never been such a time.  Ever.

So we look into the eyes of these brave young men and women and see something there that was all too rare.  It’s a new kind of patriotism for this Common Era.  Guys like the Bear and Tim and Austin and Robin, who also know, as David did, that strength and courage and integrity come from the Living God.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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National Day of Prayer

Monday Morning, September 22, 2008

You may not have heard about the perfect storm that blew through the coastline of our economic system this week, unless you read the newspaper or watched cable or listened to the radio or tuned in the Evening News.  The headlines are everywhere.  Some called it “9/11 of Wall Street.”  Others, the Tsunami of Manhattan.  Or the Katrina visited upon our Banking System.

For most of us, especially out here on the West Coast, it’s theoretical.  Abstract.  We see it in the decline in value of our portfolios.  We watch the drop in value of our homes as comps show up on the board.  But as long as our jobs remain intact, life pretty much goes on.  Without the headlines and the shell-shocked talking heads to stir us up, we might not even realize how calamitous the whole thing could be.

But the dreadful metaphors employed by politicians and public spokespersons are unsettling, to say the least.  You may have heard the names Freddy and Fanny and AIG before this month.  Few of us had any real comprehension about how any of those draconian-sized financial institutions impact our lives, that is, before last week.  We remember the “tech bubble” that burst the first year of the current millennium.  We recall the market slide that followed the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  And we knew the skyrocketing climb of the price of housing would someday end.  But none of us imagined the mess that would require a massive, trillion dollar government bail-out to keep the entire system from tumbling irretrievably over the precipice.

Do we simply sigh in relief?  Or do we fasten our seatbelts for more turbulence yet to come?  Whatever we once thought of as “security” has been seriously called into question.  It’s as though all of us, in so many ways, are starting over.

Our pastor called upon a one hundred forty-five year old quote that seemed remarkably relevant.  The President got a directive from the United States Senate in the spring of 1863.  He readily complied.  Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of a catastrophic civil war, was asked to pen a Presidential Proclamation, setting aside a National Day of Prayer.  His language is as powerful as the paragraphs he penciled in preparation for his brief speech at Gettysburg.  Lincoln’s verbal skills were honed in the long debates with Douglas, and now from the White House, in the heady deliberations with the most powerful leaders in the world.  The stresses could not have been more intense.  The risks hanging in the balance, more enormous. 

The proclamation appeared in every newspaper in the country.  Here’s some of what he wrote –

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

As I listened to Matthew read Lincoln’s words on Sunday morning, I was struck by how far we’ve come from those fundamental roots that once anchored our souls.  What might happen if we were somehow gripped by that same sense of the majesty of God; and humbly confessed our ready participation in a chase for wealth and power that has left us empty and fearful?

Lincoln went on…

And I do hereby request all the People to abstain on that day from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

All this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.

What if our President, or either of the two in hot pursuit of the Office, expressed the same sentiment?  With the same core of sincerity and humility?  Would the Senate concur?  The apparent answer to these hypothetical questions is a sad commentary indeed.

One thing we do know, the Day of Prayer on April 30, 1863 did not bring an end to the fighting.  It went on for two more awful, bloody years. 

But somehow, on this Monday morning, as we leaders contemplate the consequences of bad debt and soaring costs and an uncertain future, maybe it’s time to get on our knees.

And pray.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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Train Wreck

Monday Morning, September 15, 2008

When things go wrong, terribly wrong, in the on-stage world of live music, we call it a “train wreck.”  Musicians call on the phrase when someone forgets the lyric, or the band hits the wrong note or one of the players launches out in the wrong key.  It’s only a train wreck, really, because someone missed a cue and it messed up the performance and when you are on stage you can’t do it over.

Performers don’t like train wrecks.

It’s an apt metaphor, I suppose.  But the only real damage to performers in the case of a botched gig is psychological.  We may be dealing with a damaged career, but more likely a damaged ego.  Everyone will get over it soon enough.  Our metaphors are often inflated exaggerations.  Real train wrecks are another matter entirely.

So when the Metrolink commuter train and the Union Pacific freight train collided on a routine Friday afternoon last week, we got a powerful, potent visual of the real thing.

Years ago, I had a friend who worked for Santa Fe Railroad.  A veteran engineer, or driver as he liked to say, John was promoted to instructor.  He trained engineers, preparing them for every possible contingency on the tracks.  He talked about the enormous liability drivers carry every day.  “Don’t let the monotony fool you,” he said.  “Driving a train is ninety-nine percent sheer boredom.  It’s the one percent of sheer terror that you’ve got to be ready for.”

He invited us to come visit him at the simulator.  I brought our son, Kevin, along back when he was about ten years old.  It was a large interior space that contained a mock-up of a full sized diesel engine facing a twenty-foot tall video screen and surround sound speakers in all four corners.  The controls were live, the accelerator and the brakes and the dials, and the steel floor would vibrate as the engine roared and the heavy steel wheels rolled along imaginary rails.  Kevin sat in the engineer’s seat. He grabbed the controls.  John talked mainly about the dangers of too much speed in the wrong places – down a hill or around the bend.  The enormous mass (a physicist’s term) if allowed to get out of control, will inflict incalculable damage.

We see and hear those trains every day in our little town.  A main line is barely a mile away from our house.  They roll by, whistle blowing, across the main north-south intersections while traffic lines up, waiting, gates down, red lights flashing, bells ringing.  As we flew in a private plane just last week, we saw one of those Union Pacific freighters from the air, nearly a mile long snaking through the town, delivering consumer goods from our massive Port in Los Angeles to some distant Wal-Mart.

The Metrolink driver on Friday afternoon was not, apparently, trained by my friend John.  The evidence mounts.  The word on the street is that the engineer was text-messaging as he drove past two red lights which on any routine run would signal him to pull off on a siding and let the long, heavy freight train coming from the opposite direction go by.  Why the conductor also failed to notice the signal remains a mystery.  A dispatcher from some remote location, caught the oversight on his computer screen and radioed his warning.  But the transmission arrived after impact.

When I first saw the wreckage, that aerial shot from the news helicopter hovering over the scene, I couldn’t discern much detail.  It was later that I understood enormity of the impact.  The Metrolink’s diesel engine was buried two thirds of the way into the passenger car of the Metrolink, pushed back when it was instantly thrown into reverse by the crushing mass of Union Pacific engine and the freight cars behind.  They both lay on their side as smoldering wreckage.  In John’s world, this would be a worst case scenario.

I was driving across town then our local news station broadcast a hastily called news-conference in which Metrolink spokesperson Denise Tyrrell dropped a verbal bombshell at the microphone.  Clearly upset, she announced the unmistakable conclusion that the cause of the horrible crash was human error.  The Metrolink engineer, not a Metrolink employee, missed a red light.  She apologized for her company, which she said, was fully responsible.  She seemed distraught, as though this tragic case of neglect destroyed everything she’d worked for as a community relations specialist and she simply could not keep the unvarnished truth to herself.  She told the world.

I remember wondering – did she get permission from her superiors?  This was not the carefully crafted public statement reviewed by attorneys and insurance executives and the public relations professionals.  We are accustomed to hearing someone say in measured tones, “We cannot release any speculative information regarding the cause until we have a full and complete investigation into every contingency.” 

But this time, the person paid to speak for the company spoke for her colleagues and community in a rare moment of uncharacteristic candor.  It was straight talk.  Heart-felt.  Agonizing truth.  Unfiltered.  And somehow, redemptive.

I read this morning that Denise Tyrrell resigned her post.  Her superiors had not approved her press-conference statement.  The legal department was certainly enraged.  Associated Press put it this way: “Tyrrell says she has quit because a Metrolink board statement called her announcement ‘premature.'”

On this Monday morning, in the aftermath of yet another tragedy, as leaders, we think of the families of the victims and the many more in hospital rooms battling for their lives. Our hearts and our prayers go out to the victims.  One passenger on the train who lived to tell his story relayed with raw emotion the moments following the impact.  He looked piercingly at his interviewer and asked, “Is this what my whole life was leading up to?” He paused to reflect.  “Ya know?…  Is this what my whole life was leading up to?”

Train wrecks trigger the big questions.

Real train wrecks get our attention because those metaphorical train wrecks happen in our real life.  Let’s face it.  Maybe you had one recently – a train wreck of your own.  You are this very morning still in a daze.  Your world has been rocked.  It was more than a silly missed cue on stage.  It was a head-on collision with a mile long freight train.  You had nowhere to go.

Let’s learn from Denise Tyrrell.  Tell the truth about what you know.  And then, go ahead.  Ask the big questions.

Some new doors will open.  There are answers.  There’s a whole team of rescue professionals.  Many of them volunteers.  Trust me.

Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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Hockey Moms and Pit Bulls

Monday Morning – September 8, 2008

In this new world of changing political landscapes, Hockey Moms and Soccer Moms are pretty much synonymous.  The notion that either would be different from pit-bulls in only one respect – lipstick – is enough to put a non-partisan smile on just about anyone’s face.  The difference between hockey and soccer would only indicate the ready accessibility of ice.  The farther north, the more likely you’d find a hockey mom, though right here in Southern California I’ve got a card carrying hockey mom for a sister.  (We’ve got that ice in enclosed rinks right here even in the heat of summer.)  Whether it’s hockey or soccer, the moms have become target market for politicians.  Win them over, and you’ve really got something.

It seems that every political season brings a new word or phrase that permeates the discussion; this year – “vetting.”  These words catch on.  You’ll hear them used sparsely early on, and then the frequency proliferates until pretty soon everybody has the hang of it.  For this year’s winner, the root word is vet.  It’s not the noun form, which is much more familiar as in short for veterinarian.  Or veteran.  This would be the verb form.  Turns out the root word is the same as the animal doctor – who “examines.”   According to the dictionary, to vet is “to appraise, verify, or check for accuracy, authenticity, or validity” which is what Presidential candidates are supposed to do when they consider a running mate.

In this thing we call the blogosphere, I can track how often a LeaderFOCUS gets read.  I can’t tell who reads it, but sometimes one of my little essays takes off.  One of those is the piece I wrote called “In Praise of Oratory.”  I’m not sure why, but it is the second most read piece on my blog.  It somehow shows up on Internet searches, I suppose.  Or it gets passed around from reader to reader.  I wrote about the lost art of public speaking – and how few there are who have mastered the craft.  I talked about a young politician raised by a single mom and grew up on mean streets and managed to get the attention of some of the highest rated schools in America and then emerged as a powerful rhetorician.  His compelling speech at the 2004 Democrat Convention launched an unlikely career. 

I’m left to scratch my head wondering why so few public leaders pay attention to the power and the benefit and the effectiveness of the classic discipline of oratory.  Some of them employ brilliant speech writers who serve up powerful phrases and piercing logic and compelling punch lines, but even with the teleprompter right there, they cannot deliver those lines.  If a good number-cruncher took the time, they could calculate the cost per phrase.  Factor in the weighty issues that hang in the balance, you could put a staggering price tag on the value of each word.  But the inability to deliver leaves those pricey sentences on the trash heap of forgotten verbiage.  There’s nothing more disappointing than a politician who has the right ideas, but can’t persuade the people.

Now we’ve heard some powerful communicators these past couple of weeks.  To call it oratory may be generous.  But compelling.  Energizing.  Persuasive.  If you looked and listened, you will have heard it.

I was on the airplane with Carolyn when the news broke.  We just pulled up to the gate.  I turned on my cell phone with the data connection, and up popped the headline.  “McCain Announces His Choice for Running Mate.”  I read it out loud, and suddenly, the entire passenger compartment went silent.  Everyone stopped cold.  They looked my direction.  McCain’s eagerly anticipated pick was apparently made while we were in the air; and the secret was well kept.  Everyone perked up.  I looked for a familiar name in the text – Romney, Huckabee, Giuliani, Lieberman.  I squinted over a name I’d never seen before – “Palin.”  I had no idea how to pronounce it.

“I’ve never heard of him…” I said.  Perplexed.  Everyone else looked puzzled.  “Pal-in” was my attempt.

A couple rows up, a guy turned and said, “Sarah Palin.  Governor of Alaska.”

“Whoa,” I said in amazement as I noticed the first name.  “I’ve never heard of her.”  It was one more embarrassing moment out there in a public place.

After that speech last week, Sarah Palin is no longer an unknown.  With a hint of Fargo in her voice, she stepped up to the mike and after a couple minutes settling in, she launched the speech of a lifetime.  Even veteran talking heads were left tongue tied.  A political bomb went off.  The pundits, usually self-assured and poised, were shell-shocked.

I’m not ready to call it oratory.  But it was a speech.  A stem-winder.  A barn-burner.  It connected.  It launched a career.  “A star is born,” one commentator said.  Another called it the emergence of an “instant legend.”  (That could well be an oxymoron of the first rank, but who cares?)

I’ve already confessed, I’m a soft touch for a great speech.  They are all too rare these days.  Somehow, I do believe that Obama raised the bar in 2004.  Others, now, have trained like Olympians to reach that bar; and the effect has been nothing short of stunning.  Even Hillary has improved.  Obama hit the mark again in Denver.  Then you’ve got Romney and Giuliani.  And now, Sarah.

Staying power is no small thing in this pressure cooker of American politics.  (“Was she properly “vetted” by the McCain camp?”  They’ll keep asking.)  As a leader, you know how hard it is to sustain serious momentum.

But on this Monday morning, maybe it’s time to put some lipstick on that pit-bull, and get after it.  Just like Sarah did.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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