I’m told that Obama seemed “almost giddy” after coming out with his milestone pronouncement in favor of gay marriage. The sheer relief of not being suffocated by hairsplitting political calculus and gamed-out spin control was a moment of moral liberation—not just for Obama but for America. On a less exalted level, it hasn’t hurt Obama’s campaign war chest either. “Yes we can” supporters who’d long lost hope of seeing any audacity from this hyperrational president are opening their checkbooks with fresh abandon. (Let’s raise a cheer here for perennially ridiculed Joe Biden. Some flubs are self-defining, and this one was historically endearing.)
That dreaded reply, “Well, it’s complicated,” is the mantra of our age. The modern leader is essentially a castrato. Between media terror, poll-tested positioning, legal restraints, and crony capitalism it takes massive moral character to remember who you are. And once in a while act on it. Sometimes leadership is just saying what you believe. Susana Martinez, Republican governor of New Mexico, is a beguiling veep option for Mitt Romney. “I don’t want to be a politician,” snaps America’s first Latina governor, reassuringly. “I want to be a leader.” She’s always been one. Growing up in a working-class Mexican-American neighborhood in El Paso, Texas, Martinez was known for ordering the other kids around. Her grandmother called her “la abogadita,” the little lawyer; her older brother remembers her as “muy bossy.”
When Martinez was 14, teachers invited female students to talk about their dreams: Where do you want to be in five years? In 10 years? When they got to a 20-year projection, Martinez confessed she was considering a career in politics. As a young Latina, “I didn’t have a whole lot of role models to say, ‘This much is possible, versus this much,’?” she explains. “So I finally said, ‘I think I’d like to be a mayor.’ And they said, ‘Why stop there?’?” In an interview with Newsweek’s Andrew Romano she reveals that she’s breaking with her party to endorse comprehensive immigration reform, a subject off-limits among Republicans since 2007. Let’s hope Martinez gets traction; she is certainly an anomaly in the current GOP. The Tea Party just dumped Dick Lugar, one of the longest-serving Republican senators, for the crime of being too sane. While Obama triumphed by belatedly endorsing principles in which he actually believed, Lugar lost because he would not endorse principles to which he was averse. He could have played it safe and uttered a few conservative shibboleths, but he didn’t. Another lost GOP leader.
Being the CEO of a bank isn’t much fun either. Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase told CNBC earlier this year that, under the Volcker Rule in the Dodd-Frank Act, “if you want to be trading you have to have a lawyer and a psychiatrist sitting next to you determining what was your intent every time you did something.” Dimon, the golden boy of banking, had done a canny job steering JPMorgan away from the “vampire squid” stereotype of risk taking at customers’ expense. But last week, he came out with the mortifying confession that the firm had lost $2 billion in an internal fund meant to shield the bank from massive losses. Zachary Karabell comments: “Sometimes being risk-averse is the greatest risk of all.”
Even great leaders sometimes lose the plot. Colin Powell, the widely respected general and former secretary of state, is wryly candid in his memoir about being sold a bill of goods over WMDs in Iraq. “If you break it, you own it” was his memorable warning to President Bush before the invasion. An abiding principle for Powell is that leaders take charge. That means going with your gut and doing what’s right. Or as Obama put it on gay marriage, “In some places ... [this] may hurt me. But you know, I think it’s important for me ... to go ahead [and say], ‘Let’s be clear: Here’s what I believe.’?”