I am of course paraphrasing Mario Cuomo’s ‘You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose’.
Cuomo (1932-2015) was an American lawyer, a Democrat, a devout Catholic, a Governor of New York (1983-1994) and very fond of phrases. He did ‘Poetry’ a lot. He once said: ‘I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in 50 years what my father taught by example in one week’. Mario Cuomo did talk. Perhaps the Italian genes.
For all his visible and memorable ‘Poetry’, the Poetry of ‘Yes-We-Can’ and ‘Hope’, Obama, another lawyer, had to be coached and coerced into Poetry by his formidable team of political campaigners. Believe it or not, Obama was (is?) more comfortable with Prose. It’s the lawyer within. He would much prefer to give long and articulated explanations of the reason for a particular policy, than summaries and power-lines; driving his Communicators and Advisers nuts.
He was asked to be concise many times during the 2012 campaign, in particular, and he failed miserably at the beginning, for example in his first TV debate with Romney. He had to be reminded again and again (and to the point of people around being close to resigning in desperation) that, as leader, he needed to continue with the Poetry.
After the elections, he used to complain to David Axelrod, his key campaign architect saying: ‘I am not campaigning anymore!’, meaning, I can leave the Poetry and get into the Prose – his long Harvard lawyer explanations on social justice for example. He was told, as firmly as a friendship of many years could handle, that he was very wrong. ‘You are campaigning all the time’, Axelrod shouted at him. (David Axelrod, ‘Believer’, Penguin Press 2015)
It would be a mistake to equate Poetry with spin. ‘Poetry’ means here, inspiration, purpose, drive, making sense, driving commitment, inviting to a place, a dream, a goal, elevating the logic to a higher purpose. Leadership Poetry can be (must be) sincere and honest, but has to elevate the narrative to a place of destiny; I don’t mind small d or big D.
The same honesty and sincerity applies to Prose. Prose means the day to day managing, governing, making things happen, driving to results. After all, ‘manage’ has its roots in the Latin ‘manus’ (hands). Hands on things happening, that is.
The problem arises when a natural Prose-person holds a top leadership position, and when a top leader Poet is sent to manage the troops. I know, I know, this is too black and white, too binary, particularly for those who always say ‘you-have-to-have both’ (a Deus Ex Machina we all have handy when we want to kill a good debate). But it makes the point for me.
As leader, never stop the Poetry. Small p, big P, it does not matter. Even if you are also comfortable in the War and Peace side of writing.
Prose makes things happen. Poetry explains why.