Looking for the Letters of Transit
Sam’s Piano was sold at auction the other day. That’s the Sam’s Piano, the one from which Dooley Wilson serenaded Ilsa and Rick in Casablanca, the one where the Letters of Transit were hidden in plain sight.
The little upright and stool, mounted under a protective shield (can you imagine someone sitting down to actually tickle those ivories) went for $3.2 Million, and you can well understand why. There is something about Casablanca that holds our attention and our loyalty, something about it that doesn’t age. It’s hokey, it’s improbable, and it has just about every cliché we’ve come to love, and repeat, and giggle over. One of my favorite reviews was by Pauline Kael, who claimed, "It's far from a great film, but it has a special appealingly schlocky romanticism...” Whenever I come across that, my thought is always some variation of “enjoy your snotty elitism” (or something less printable…)
It was a serendipitous coincidence that the New York Times ran a story about the auction on the same day that the conservative columnist David Brooks published The Unifying Leader. Brooks strikes me increasingly as a lost soul, unable to find an intellectual home in a Republican Party that has become fiercely anti-intellectual. Not that he’s in the least bit interested in being a Democrat. But, if you asked Brooks, privately, what he thought of the GOP of Palin, Bachmann, and Stockman he might point you in the direction of Irving Kristol, considered a founder of neo-conservatism and a man of great intellectual depth, and his sophomoric son, William Kristol, who trades off his father’s name and makes an industry out of vacuous rabble-rousing. Irving is gone, and Bill is not, and Brooks has run out of kindred spirits. He needs an emotional bridge to the next President, and we need one as well.
What Brooks wants is a “collaborative leader,” someone who has “rejected the heroic, solitary model of leadership. He doesn’t try to dominate his organization as its all-seeing visionary, leading idea generator and controlling intelligence.”
To paraphrase, collaborative leaders share certain qualities; they create a culture of collaboration and not competition, they tone down the partisanship, they bring multiple interest groups to the table in drafting and enacting important legislation and look for bold solutions, not tepid compromise, they empower groups to come up with solutions by giving them responsibility without micromanaging, they place themselves as a center of gravity, an honest broker between extremes, they understand that the sausage-making process can be messy but the mess is less relevant than the result. What Brooks also craves is a leader with the strength of ego to have a thick skin about the slings and arrows thrown his way, mixed with a certain ruthlessness when it comes cutting people from the herd, regardless of their talents, when they simply refuse to play well with others.
Brooks’ piece is interesting in that it’s completely non-partisan, beyond the inevitable tacit conclusion we draw that the person he describes is to be found nowhere in Washington—particularly in the White House. But I also think it's an exercise in worship of an ideal that has never existed in history, a hagiographic rendering of a wise Philosopher-King such as Marcus Aurelius, who embraced Stoicism and was informed by it as a ruler.
Brooks is being impractical. The type of leader he describes has been President only in bits and pieces—FDR’s “first class temperament” and Reagan’s sunny self-assurance, Lincoln’s extraordinary sense of purpose, Jefferson’s intellect, LBJ’s cat-herding ability, etc. Look out at the current cast of 2016 aspirants, and you don’t see anyone projecting those types of strength.
And, I think Brooks is wrong. We really don’t want a collaborative leader. She isn’t going to be able to get anything done—likely sabotaged by ideologues on both sides of the aisle or held hostage by nihilists who prefer scorched Earth to any type of compromise.
Rather, I think many of us are looking for something out of Casablanca—a reluctant but tough warrior, someone who can tell the difference between right and wrong, regardless of which side it comes from, someone just world-weary enough to be able to make the right decision even when it involves personal sacrifice.
We don’t want Victor Laszlo, a man who, having recently escaped from a concentration camp, shows up remarkably healthy and impeccably dressed at Rick’s Café. It's an interesting bit of trivia that Paul Henreid, who plays Laszlo, didn’t want the role because he felt it showed him as stiff—he was right, Laszlo may be “the leader of a great movement” but he leaves us cold and uninvolved. Watch Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa in the great “dueling songs” scene, where Laszlo leads the band, and eventually the crowd, in "La Marseillaise." Her beautiful face registers admiration and concern, not love.
We certainly don’t want Louis Renault, the gleefully corrupt and libidinous local Vichy Captain. Given some of the best lines in the movie, Claude Rains is wonderfully suave and witty. He would make a great Senator, charming and cajoling, happily patting backs and taking bribes, but he’s not the right man for the top job.
It’s Rick, or Richard, as Ilsa called him when they were in Paris. The very embodiment of embittered rationalism when we first meet him, hurt to the core when Ilsa arrives with Victor, we see him show exquisite compassion to the beautiful young East European woman who, out of love, is willing to do anything (including sleep with Captain Renault) to escape with her husband. We watch him wrestle with his emotions, marinate himself in self-pity, then, after Ilsa's explanation and confession of continued love forces him to confront his own pain, rouse himself to give everything up and plan Victor and Ilsa’s escape. It's the right thing to do, for himself, and for the world.
Rick isn't David Brooks’ ideal. He is not a collaborative leader at all—he’s a loner who didn’t convene committees or hold community-building exercises before moving decisively.
But he might just be our kind of guy—the one with the Letters of Transit, the one who can take us from being stranded in Casablanca to a better place.
For my next President, I’d like to see a little FDR, and a little LBJ, and a little Jefferson and a generous dollop of Lincoln and even a dash of Reagan. But I’m also rooting for just a touch of Rick.
Find that person, regardless of the party he or she belongs to, and it might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
November 30, 2014
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)