Final Word

Those of you who were busy with better things to do may have missed the flash-in-a-pan scandal of Van Jones, President Obama’s green jobs czar, who was forced to resign in September. Television host Glenn Beck brought to light a string of foolish and caustic things Jones had said in public over the last two decades and Obama’s people didn’t even put up a fight for him.

Jones, and the rash statements that lead to his ejection from the political Pantheon, represent something more destructive to the democratic process than just another not-ready-for-prime-time player. Blasting one’s political opponents with vile insults and depredations and no heed of the truth is now considering legitimate “debate,” – slime the opponent and hope some of it sticks.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, for 22 of the last 27 years I’ve been interviewing and writing about people in the private sector, people who make things: woodworkers, cabinetmakers, homebuilders, remodelers, heavy equipment contractors and the people who build and sell the tools, machines and equipment that make all this possible. And perhaps with maybe just one or two forgettable exceptions, every time I’ve probed in an interview to see if these people wanted to say something negative about their competition, they all respond with the same polite evasion, something to the effect of: “I don’t want to unfairly characterize our competition, so I’d prefer to tell you more about on the benefits of our product/business/idea/people…”

Cautious, conservative, humble, smart and impressive. I’ve heard that line or variations on it so many times I wonder if they don’t teach it in business school.

With few exceptions, I think this is the way most business gets done in the private sector. You can promote what you do and compare it to the competition, but smackdowns are bad form. This is how the people who make things happen get things done. This is the prevailing character of most people in the private sector – the people who grow our food, build our houses and cars and pave our streets and keep electricity and water flowing into our homes.

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Contrast that to the Van Jones of the world and it’s not too hard to surmise why nothing is getting done – or getting done well – in Washington, D.C., anymore. Politicians have always taken potshots at each other, but they started turning up the heat a few years ago and in the echo chamber of the modern 24/7 media it’s gotten completely out of hand. You can’t reform health care, improve the environment and straighten out the economy if you think everybody who doesn’t see it your way is a spawn of the devil.

Honest give and take is always harder than name calling, but it builds character. Restraining one’s tongue – as Van Jones’ grandfather, a preacher – could have told him, makes a man better and stronger. Pity Van Jones didn’t listen to the old Methodist back then. Pity all of us if Washington doesn’t listen now.