Most of the Big Names who come out this time of the election year to proclaim their pick in the presidential contest probably have less influence than your neighbor's choice in the race for alderman. At least you may know your neighbor.
Nevertheless, the media-ocracy was mightily impressed the other day when Colin Powell came out for Barack Obama. The timing of the general's endorsement was the perfect staff officer's move that is, it was politically safe. Note that he didn't announce his pick when Barack Obama was locked in a delegate-by-delegate struggle with Hillary Clinton for their party's presidential nomination, or when John McCain and Sarah Palin were enjoying their post-convention boost in the public opinion polls.
Instead, Gen. Powell made his Big Announcement only after those same polls began predicting an Obama sweep unseen since President Dewey's time. The general is nothing if not risk-averse.
In the same appearance in which he endorsed Senator Obama's candidacy for the White House by saying the country needed to break with the past, Gen. Powell adroitly sidestepped his own connections with that past, including his support for the war in Iraq. Although he had agreed with Barack Obama that the Surge was sure to fail in Iraq, preparatory to its succeeding beyond even its planners' wildest hopes.
Yet the ever-popular general somehow managed to distance himself from all that, such is his talent for going with the prevailing winds of public sentiment. As a leader, he's more of a barometer. He doesn't so much endorse a politician or a policy as go along with a safe bet.
This is not to dismiss the importance of a presidential candidate's backers. The most assuring presence in the Obama campaign has to be that of the venerable but still vocal Paul Volcker, who was chairman of the Federal Reserve when it was actually fulfilling the purpose for which it was created, which was to preserve the value of the national currency. See the indispensable role Mr. Volcker played in the Reagan Era, aka the Reagan Recovery.
Of course, it took a while for the recovery to take hold after all Jimmy Carter and incompetent company had done to wreck the American economy. But at a time when the sophisticates were arguing about how best to manage America's inevitable economic decline, Mr. Volcker held fast to his belief in a strong dollar. By doing he so, he dismayed many in the Reagan administration itself, who thought the way to assure prosperity (and the president's re-election) was to inflate the economy even more.
Mr. Volcker held his ground, and after a sharp recession, it was morning in America again. He showed not just economic competence but perseverance, principle and sheer political guts. Not till Alan Greenspan took the reins at the Fed and began lowering interest rates like there was no tomorrow would the stage be set for today's strange economic storm.
Now, after a couple of decades, Paul Volcker is back in the public spotlight, and he offers the best hope that Barack Obama is much too intelligent to believe the economic nostrums his campaign has been pitching. Like penalizing small businesses, or at least the most successful of them, and undoing trade agreements whether with Canada or Colombia. (Protectionism is but the economic version of isolationism, and can be just as dangerous.) Surely a Paul Volcker at this political messiah's right hand will restrain him from such folly. Let's hope.
What a strange twist: If the presidential election goes Barack Obama's and the polls' way, a President Obama might have the same steady guide to the twists and turns of economic policy as President Reagan did. That's an assurance. Some endorsements do carry weight. Especially coming from a gray eminence who's stood up against political pressures rather than always going with the flow.
When I was still young and trusting it's hard to remember those days now I lived secure in a world my elders had fashioned for me. I may not have had much of an idea about what was going on out there, but I felt sure the grown-ups did and would look out for me. Especially if they were distant, authoritative figures who had their pictures in the paper and were always being acclaimed presidents, generals, Nobel Prize winners, professors and, at the very apex of the pyramid of authority, high school principals. All was right with the world, or at least under control.
Then I grew up, became a grown-up myself, and realized I had no idea what was going on and neither did my peers, who may have been grown in years but not wisdom. So when some figure in the news endorsed a candidate, policy or toothpaste, one learned to be wary. Trust became something no longer given blindly; it had to be earned. Which is why the value of an endorsement depends on the endorser, and why I'd trust a Paul Volcker talking about economics, but would need a boxcar of salt to take Colin Powell's political shifts very seriously.