Saturday, November 08, 2008

Lesson 7: Show others the way to common ground

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When you're a Kenya-Kansas hybrid, you either drive yourself nuts trying to sort out your identity or you find common ground among opposites. By all accounts, that nose for synthesis is why Obama's classmates selected him to be President of the Harvard Law Review. Neither the liberals nor the conservatives had the votes to elect their chosen candidate. But in Obama, both groups saw a guy who would give their side a fair shake. And he did.

Years later, Robert Putnam, a social scientist and political theorist, hosted seminars at Harvard's Kennedy School on how to rebuild the country's broken sense of community. He recruited an obscure Illinois state Senator named Barack Obama to participate, along with bank presidents, entrepreneurs, and such better-known figures as religious-right strategist Ralph Reed and former Clintonista George Stephanopoulos.

"Barack Obama was one of the youngest in the group," Putnam told me. "At the beginning of our sessions, he stood back a little bit, listening to the others. But often around noon, you'd hear him say, 'Well I hear Jane saying this, and Joe saying that, but both Jane and Joe would probably agree on this more fundamental point.' Now, these were big-ego people he was dealing with, but he made his mark. It's a skill the country needs now: An emphasis on synthesis, not divisiveness."