Where did all the talent go?

David Gergen, the CNN senior political analyst, invariably introduced as a “former counselor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton,” was in Arkansas the other night to lecture at Philander Smith College. Alas, a schedule conflict kept me away, for I anticipated that Gergen would speak less on the current campaign, about which there already is much discussion elsewhere, than about another of his passions, one he pursues as director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. And that would be, well, leadership — the urgent need to identify it, cultivate it, to motivate those with the qualities that constitute leadership to take up positions of responsibility in American life. Not just in politics and public service, but in business, science, education and the arts. They are, naturally, intertwined.

Leadership long ago was defined roughly as the art and science of persuading people to do what they don’t want to do. Pay taxes, for example. Integrate their schools, immunize their children. Recycle their empty cans. Worthy goals are accomplished, on a broad societal scale, by those equipped by native intelligence, schooling and idealism. They are not necessarily in short supply; luring them into the contest is more difficult than finding promising potential contestants. The rewards of public and private service are, by and large, not financial.

There is never an absence of candidates for public office. No matter the perils of the increasingly brutal political battlefield, all the bloodier for the obscene sums of money from unaccountable, sometimes unidentifiable sources, competitors step forward on filing day. But are they the best we can offer?

“Where did all the talent go?” asked Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen a few days ago, concentrating on the biggest picture. “In 1980 Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination. He beat a future president, George H.W. Bush; two future Senate majority leaders, Howard Baker and Bob Dole; and two lesser-known congressmen. This year Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination. He beat a radio host, a disgraced former House speaker, a defeated Senate candidate, a former appointee of the Obama administration, a tongue-tied Texas governor, a prevaricating religious zealot who happens to serve in the House of Representatives and a cranky libertarian doctor.”

Without question Reagan’s victory ushered in an age of ideology that has steadily pushed both parties away from the center (even as Reagan himself was rather more centrist in governance than his adversaries had imagined he would be). That straightjacket, and President Obama’s election, which has served to turn the south ever more crimson, at once invites government by blind ideology (or legislative stasis) and creates a culture in which the best and brightest are needed more than ever.

The distress is, or should be, bi-partisan. We have plenty of examples in Arkansas:

— The state treasurer, a Democrat, under subpoena by the legislature to answer questions about curious bond transactions, her investment director seeking whistleblower protection and the credibility of the entire office in question.

— The secretary of state, a Republican whose election surprised even him, surprises no one who followed his career in the legislature by stumbling at nearly every turn.

— The Cabinet-level head of the Career Education Department, a Democrat, remains in place notwithstanding a kettle of personnel problems and accounting issues.

— Three state legislators, Republicans, have unbecoming contact with the police: two for fleeing, another for fighting with his girlfriend.

— A state legislator, a Democrat, resigns after his guilty plea in an absentee vote investigation.

One could go on. Ineptitude and arrogance, like ignorance and irresponsibility, are not crimes. Not so mis-, mal- and nonfeasance but, so far as we know, it’s relatively less common. The larger problem is the shortage of first-tier, credentialed men and women of real purpose who are anxious to tackle the substance of policy and administration, and who have the political savvy to make the case for the future and against fear. It’s a mission for both political parties, in Arkansas, in every state. It can’t be left to academies in Cambridge or Little Rock, or we’ll be left with more of which we already have too much.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.