Last Friday, I picked up the New York Times and, for some unfathomable reason, found myself pouring through transcripts of testimony by Gale Norton and John Ashcroft. Predictably, each would-be Cabinet member tried to paint him- or herself as a calm, judicious, principled American, dedicated to the Rule of Law, the Protection of the Environment, the Advancement of our Great Country.

And just as predictably, after reading their testimony and the remarks of folks like Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White, a somewhat different picture emerged.

Ashcroft: ferociously ambitious, fervently right-wing, full of the usual pseudo-patriotic pieties, and a consummate practitioner of hardball politics. In other words, a typical Republican senator.

Norton: Must love the environment; she's from Colorado! Global warming? Don't worry; she'll find a few random scientists to say it's all nonsense. After all, because our perceived need for giant SUVs and the energy industry's perceived need to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve perfectly dovetail, we can just toss global warming in the old dumpster, along with half-baked liberal notions of wilderness values.

Meanwhile, it's tough to avoid our new Prez, whose inaugural gloat-a-thon ("Get over it -- we won!!") has the same tiresome, overhyped quality as this week's Superbowl. Two lousy teams, and the one that wins will preen and posture for the next year. Unfortunately for the Dems, the GOPsters get to preen and posture at least until 2002.

And listening to W.'s whiny, nasal drawl, so like the Clinton/Carter whiny nasal drawls, one wonders about the presidential talent pool. For the last quarter of a century, our presidents have fallen into three notably undistinguished categories, namely:

Washed-up actor/do-nothing governor of cutting-edge state (Reagan)

Big-talking, do-nothing governors of big-talking nothingburger Southern states (Carter, Clinton, George W.)

Arrogant, over-bred scions of the WASP aristocracy, who believe they were divinely ordained to rule, even if they have to eat pork rinds and suck up to the loonies at Bob Jones U. to get there (Bush and Bush).

It makes you realize, in all seriousness, just how antic and unreasonable our electoral process is. It's like a session at the Ouija board, with dozens of heavy-handed players (the media, the political parties, the interest groups, the identified aspirants to office) all flagrantly cheating, all trying to manipulate the process. It's an interminable, high-stakes Survivor, which, like the TV show, rewards the most unprincipled schemer. It's fun, it's theatrical, it's what you do if you're a rich, white governor or senator, but it's a crappy way to choose the leader of the greatest empire that the world has ever seen.

Let us consider the way that corporations and universities choose their leaders. Most of them have similar processes: Search committees are formed, which represent the constituencies that the new president/CEO must answer to (namely, shareholders, customers, workers, managers, communities or faculty, staff, students and parents).

The committees select a half-dozen finalists, who are exhaustively evaluated by all, and one of them is eventually hired. Thanks to the remarkable changes that have taken place in American society over the last half-century, competence alone should determine who gets the job.

At about the same time that George W. was pulling out a victory in Florida, Brown University announced the selection of a new president.

Ruth Simmons, former president of Smith College, got the job. Like George W., she's a Texas native in her mid-50s. Unlike George W., she's female, African-American, and grew up dirt poor, the daughter of sharecroppers. As you might expect, hers is an extraordinary and inspiring story about overcoming astounding odds.

But what you might not expect is that the story is not entirely about affirmative action, and not at all about political correctness.

Looking at Simmons' career, and reading a recent interview with her, it's clear that she's a brilliant scholar; a direct, no-nonsense administrator; and a warm, charismatic human being. She wasn't hired because she's a black female; she was hired (the unanimous choice of Brown's trustees) because she was the best candidate. Brown's lucky; for them, getting Simmons was as much a coup as was getting A-Rod for the Texas Rangers.

But thanks to our sclerotic national political process, we got to choose between Gore and Bush. That's like matching San Diego and Cleveland in the Super Bowl, or paying the worst hitter in Class D $100 million a year to play for the Yankees. And how do we solve the problem? Speaking as a middle-aged white guy, and George W.'s distant cousin (true!), I haven't got the slightest idea.

Maybe we should ask Ruth Simmons.


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