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Christmas 2012

For those of you who have been visiting another planet, the US had a Presidential Election in 2012. It seemed endless. Previously unthinkable amounts of money were spent. If you had the misfortune to live in a swing state, your life was hell- only in America, land of Citizens United.

Barack Obama did secure a second term, comfortably in the electoral college but narrowly in the popular vote. The red states were very red, the blue states were very blue. Those few swing states (getting ever smaller in number) went narrowly to Obama. Almost 60 percent of whites voted for Mitt Romney, 80 percent of minorities voted for Barack Obama – not exactly a mandate for a united country.

Meanwhile the country goes on with surprising resilience. The economy is improving. The big and small cities that I visit with some regularity are outwardly robust – restaurants are busy, cell phones and iPads ubiquitous. American manufacturing continues to put up record numbers. We may be losing our edge but, if so, it is happening so slowly that most of us, at least those of us with jobs, aren’t seeing it.

Still, President Obama faces a stern test as the country must address the “fiscal cliff” and, more fundamentally, must come up with a serious plan to address entitlement spending. All this is possible if our President learned from the leadership failures of his first term, and the Republicans learned from their failure to elect Mitt Romney. As I write this in early December, it appears we have slow learners in charge.

But 2012 was not simply about the US election.  In England Queen Elizabeth celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, 60 years on the throne –the first Monarch to do so since Queen Victoria.  My wife Sally and I were in England for the splendid opening of the Jubilee – a vast parade of boats on the Thames, including a beautiful replica of the many-oared Queen’s barge which in a previous life had brought Admiral Nelson’s body on its final leg of the journey from Trafalgar.

We were in England for another special personal reason, the naming of the Bancroft Chair in Biochemistry at my Oxford University College, Oriel.  A generous bequest to Oriel by my friend, and Amgen CEO, Kevin Sharer, led to this Chair.  We celebrated in true Oxford style with a black-tie dinner in Oriel hosted by Oriel’s Provost (Head of College) and attended by the Vice-Chancellor of the University and several friends from Oxford days both English and American.  It was a lifetime highlight.

In Maine we regained momentum in our efforts to improve education.  Business leaders from across the state led a merger of the two most prominent education coalitions to form Educate Maine – a group dedicated to increasing the numbers of Mainers with post-secondary credentials.  Educate Maine, on whose Board I serve, played a role in supporting two pieces of important education legislation that passed in the recently completed legislative session. We also have strong support from the University System and the business community for a new program, Project Login, that aims to double the number of Maine’s IT graduates in the next four years.  All this is encouraging in the “long march” that is education reform.

On the book front Walter Isaacson’s sparkling biography of Steve Jobs stands out after several years of lackluster business offerings.  Isaacson catches the obsession of this brilliant, impossible person.  He paints an unvarnished picture of a driven man whose exquisite attention to detail infuriated colleagues but just as often resulted in unexpectedly powerful insight.
Coming Apart by Charles Murray is a disturbing read from a powerful conservative voice.  Murray’s data is compelling – the US is fracturing between gated enclaves and the rest of us.  Read only on a sunny day.

More eloquent history of a far earlier time is Hilary Mantel’s second volume of Henry the Eighth’s reign as seen through the eyes of his chief advisor, Thomas Cromwell.  Bring up the Bodies, in this case Anne Boleyn’s, is dazzling. For a more contemporary read try Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  This is a guy’s book about war, the Dallas Cowboys, and George W. Bush’s America – hilarious and scary at the same time.

Finally (this must have been a reading year for me), if you grew up in Maine or in a mill town, or both, then Monica Wood’s:  When We Were the Kennedy’s is a book for you.  Sweet, poignant, beautifully-crafted – this is a small gem with a big message.

We must look forward with hope.  We are Americans – failure is not an option.  If sometime in the New Year you despair, remember these recent words from Maine’s and the world’s elder statesman, George Mitchell:  “I am unreasonably certain that America’s best lies ahead”. 

May your New Year shine as brightly as the top of the Chrysler building.