What do politics in this country need most now -- leaders or managers?
Political leaders are people of conviction as well as talent. Their convictions enable them to inspire those whom they lead and their talents make them competent.
Good political managers must also be talented but their effectiveness comes from getting contentious groups to work together.
Good managers are needed when the body politic is basically sound but has a lot of problems. Leaders, on the other hand, are needed when people sense there is something basically wrong with their political community.
A French film from the 1950s, "Dr. Knock," addressed the issue of leaders vs. managers. It opens in a small French mountain town where people rarely got sick and lived long lives. The town doctor was in despair: his income was way down.
Suddenly he saw an ad in a city paper from a doctor seeking a small town practice. Quickly he responded and was forthwith visited by Dr. Knock, a tall figure looking like a funeral director. Dr. Knock paid three times the asking price and sent the old doctor off into affluent retirement.
Dr. Knock started work by announcing free medical exams to the notoriously stingy townsfolk. They came striding terrified into his office, and emerged broken in body and spirit.
Years later the old doctor notices a news item that Europe's most modern hospital has just opened in his town. Unbelieving, he rushes there and finds it is true. He asks Dr. Knock how he has done it.
"It's a question of philosophy," Dr. Knock replies. "Yours is that sickness is only a temporary deviation from health; mine is that health is only a temporary deviation from sickness."
The film could be seen as a metaphor for America under Republicans and Democrats. During their long peace-time reign which began right after the Civil War, Republicans have always claimed the country was basically sound and only needed to be managed well.
But for a century liberal Democrats have repeatedly warned of imminent doom, like three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan who, horrified by the poverty of farmers and labor, accused the Republicans of "crucifying mankind on a cross of gold." And since then the Democrats have been calling for strong leadership and for institutionals to pull the country out of crisis.
In the long list of Republican presidents since Abraham Lincoln, only one, Theodore Roosevelt, stands out as a leader. And he ended up bolting the Republican Party.
The Democrats can point to Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and even the power-hungry Lyndon Johnson (who Jesse Jackson once named the greatest American president since George Washington).
George Bush is no leader, but he and his team are competent and clever managers. They seem confident that despite lots of problems things are going America's way in the world.
And as to domestic problems, in the end they think there will be enough trickle-down from a healthy free market economy for just about everybody.
This is in keeping with the Republican tradition. What is surprising is that the Democrats have not come out with new gloom-and-doom scenarios, and that there is not a single Democratic potential candidate for the 1992 election who qualifies as a leader.
The French screenwriters never made it clear why Dr. Knock was such a remarkable leader, but the film was made at a time of undeniable crises.
Now, however, the world's northern tier is at peace and there are no rumbles of discontent as there were in Bryan's day, in the '30s and then in the '60s. Yet the sense is widespread that the American body politic is diseased. Polls show some 56 percent of Americans are pessimistic about the country's future.
Americans vote Democrats into Congress because they like them as watchdogs checking up on the Republican managers. But they evidently no longer regard any Democrat as a leader. The reason is not lack of leadership potential but trepidations about what such leaders might do.
Political leaders try to inspire everybody. Democratic leaders have traditionally tried to inspire the poor as well as the middle classes. But given the growing gap between these two classes, it may simply be that voters who are mainly middle class anyway just do not want such leaders.
Franz Schurmann is a sociologist and historian at the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service. Ernest B. Furgurson, whose column usually appears in this spot, has the day off.