In Defense of Fun for Our Leaders

After White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel criticized BP CEO Tony Hayward for going yachting, GOP Chair Michael Steele retorted, "Until this problem is fixed, no more golf outings, no more baseball games, no more Beatle concerts, Mr. President. The stakes are too high for President Obama's lackadaisical approach to both his responsibilities and the challenges we face."

What next? Should chief executives limit their exercise regimen? How about putting a quota on how much time they spend reading the comics, or watching cable television? Is it okay to watch a World Cup match if the U.S.A. is not playing? What about thirty minutes of Wimbledon if Andy Roddick is not on the schedule?

This "I work harder than you" mentality is peculiarly and malignantly American. I cannot imagine the Italians, French, or Brazilians entertaining the conversation about the possibility of striking frivolity from their daily calendars. In our eagerness to oppose those who disappoint us, we have combined the worst of faux Calvinism and pop psychology. Work hard, buckle down, and you can solve anything.

No, you cannot. The mind needs downtime. Non-work actually increases productivity.

It's hard to believe that Messrs. Emmanuel and Steele really believe that business and leaders should avoid any exposure to culture and fun. Rather, this verbal charade is another example of inside-the-beltway public relations that disgusts the American people.

George W. Bush is partly responsible for the golf as hedonism movement.  "I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander-in-chief playing golf," he said. "I feel I owe it to the families to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal."

Harry Truman liked playing poker, even as nations' boundaries were being redrawn. Ronald Reagan never quit watching movies throughout the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton never swore off fried food (or golf) during the Kosovo conflict or the Rwandan genocide. Dwight Eisenhower played about 800 rounds of golf during his cold war presidency. One could argue that each of them should have played less. Communism would not have spread, Indochina would have been a safe haven for democracy, and peace and serenity would be the enduring quality of humankind.

For some, the issue here is how public enjoyment is antithetical to showing remorse to aggrieved and injured parties. You mean he's out there at a ball game when I lost my job! This makes sense at some level, but it stretches credulity at another. Is the issue the fun, or the public nature of it? Is private fun acceptable? If so, how much? For others, the issue is the high brow nature of the fun. Baseball is America's pastime, so it passes our middle class sensibilities. But yachting and golf are symbols of the landed (and boating docked) gentry. The issue here is not the amount of time spent having fun, but the type of gratification one is pursuing. (Advice to PR flacks: make sure your senior executives (public or private) do not attend October's Head of the Charles regatta.)

More troubling about this lamentable mind-set is why we the people do not share in the fun deprivation? If we really believe leaders should not enjoy life, especially during war and indescribable environmental calamity, why do we, without pause? We willingly defer responsibility to others to solve serious problems, as we bait, chill, hit, jog, surf, swim and throw ourselves into a numbing bliss.

In the 21st century, exercising or displaying enjoyment in public during a crisis is like wearing a red dress to a funeral. One does it perilously, expecting negative repercussions from the public and media punditocracy.

Enough already. The only people who should be living an ascetic life are ascetics. Merriment may not be publicly attractive in times of war, but it is a necessary component of humanity.