In August I had my 50th Reunion from Cape Elizabeth High School, a town just across Portland from where we live today. It was a surprisingly lively and fun time. We had different events over three days, and more than half of our class of 72 graduates turned up, including our exchange student from Turkey. We listened to lots of great music from the 50’s and 60’s – the big hit of 1961, our graduation year, was Elvis of course: “Are you lonesome tonight.”
We reflected on the fact that we were fortunate to have grown up in New England at what can only be called a Golden Era in American history. The economy was booming, driven by GI’s back from the war, many with newly won college credentials courtesy of the GI Bill. Families were blossoming- young kids were everywhere. Kick the Can was our neighborhood game of choice. The sun seemed to be shining on America. We felt such a sense of opportunity – study hard, go to college, get a good job.. and that’s just the way it worked out for most of us.
That is not quite the feeling of New England or America in 2011. As I write this, the Euro is on the brink of collapse. The Congressional Super Committee, charged with special powers to solve America’s deficit problem, has failed miserably. The Occupy Wall Street movement, for all its scattered rhetoric, has given voice to the “forgotten 99%”.
All of this is disheartening, but America, for all our faults, is resilient. The fundamentals of our economy are sound. With even a little leadership from Washington we could address the Deficit problem in a way that will spur economic growth. The American dream is not dead, but it will be on life support without big change.
We thought Barack Obama was just the “Yes We Can” kind of leader who could change things in Washington. We were wrong. Experience and wisdom count for more than smarts when the chips are down. On the other hand, the Republican Party seems determined to foist either a buffoon or a mannequin upon us. I can only conclude they believe most of us are pretty dumb. Maybe Americans Elect, a group that is determined to tap into direct democracy with a national on-line vote for a presidential candidate, will give us a real alternative to the sorry state of our two major parties. We can only hope.
Did I mention yet the collapse of the Red Sox? Sally and I witnessed the beginning of the end at a game with Tampa Bay in mid-August. Little did we know the depth of the rot. New manager Bobby Valentine has a tall task and is probably not the man for the job, but hey, it is only baseball.
In the world of business we lost a true visionary in Steve Jobs of Apple. He had a particular genius for seeing the value in the detail. He was also one of the few business leaders successful in taking a company into uncharted new territory, and he did it twice with both the iPod and the iPhone.
Two memorable books stand out for me in 2011: The Puritan Gift by Kenneth and William Hopper and George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis. The Puritan Gift is an ambitious book. It tracks the success of American business back to the lessons learned from the Puritans and the second Industrial Revolution. It is a nostalgia trip which reminds us of the pillars on which American greatness was built: hands-on managers, strong work ethic, a sense of the righteousness of it all, and, oh yes, a fascination for technology. The authors are hilariously and often appropriately hard on consultants (“the cult of the expert”), particularly McKinsey consultants. This is a great read with more wisdom than the pseudo analysis of Jim Collins’ new offering Great by Choice – which will sell a lot more copies.
George F. Kennan is the biography of one of my heroes. Kennan was the career diplomat who, as a fairly junior foreign service officer posted in Moscow after World War II, first articulated the policy of containment that defined American foreign policy for the ensuing fifty years. Kennan was a brilliant, fragile, and enigmatic figure. His candle burned brightest in those critical years between 1947 and 1954 when containment and the Marshall Plan redefined Europe. He was the classic “brains behind the scene” in Dean Acheson’s State Department. One cannot understand the Cold War without reading Kennan.
2011 closed on a slightly down note for me as a substantial restructuring of the Portland Press Herald led to them dropping my Op Ed column after nearly four years. I enjoyed giving voice to issues big and small each week. I am still developing plan B, but it will involve a regular blog (if interested please sign up at www.bancroftandcompany.com). I may even revisit my long-discussed book on education reform in Maine.
As for the outlook for 2012: let us start with prayer. Perils abound here at home and in the world economy. And yet I am oddly optimistic. I believe the fundamentals of the global economy are sound. Weak, short-sighted, self-serving politicians may screw up a good thing, but I have faith in the better angels of our nature.
If your spirit is flagging, put on Handel’s Messiah, crank the volume up and meditate on Handel’s wonderful phrase “Are we like sheep?”.