What’s So Good About Outsiders?

Or, Don’t Naysay the Old-Fashioned Way

By The Editor

I recently visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. It was on the same day Donald J. Trump accepted the Republican Party’s nomination to be its presidential candidate. That made me wonder: would Kennedy have a chance at winning the Oval Office in the year of the “Outsider”?

The day before I visited the library, USA Today announced Trump’s official nomination by Republican National Convention delegates with a banner headline that read, “It’s Official: The Outsider Is In.” In his acceptance speech Trump declared, “The forgotten men and women of our country – people who work hard but no longer have a voice: I am your voice.”

Kennedy was, of course, the ultimate political “Insider.” The scion of a fabulously wealthy and politically connected family – his dad was an ambassador to Britain – who went to Harvard and a mere six years after graduation in 1940 was elected the junior Massachusetts Congressman. By 1952 he was a U.S. senator. In 1956 he unsuccessfully attempted to gain the vice presidential slot on the Democratic ticket, but in November 1960 became president of the United States.

Would that happen today, when the term Outsider is worn as a badge of honor and lauded as the most fashionable success accessory? In a 2016 presidential race, would Kennedy’s deep roots as an Insider hurt him (or someone in a pantsuit who also has Insider credentials)?

Before making a grand show of how much our perspective and priorities have shifted, we should consider what’s so good about being an Outsider. Why do so many people lately look for leaders among those with little to no track record in the field they want to command? Especially since the Outsiders themselves still rely heavily on Insiders.

Trump is the obvious example as the presidential candidate who has (most of) the Republican Party convinced the best political leader is someone with no political pedigree. And yet, he picks (hires?) Gov. Mike Pence, an Insider with a decade in Congress and four years administering Indiana, to be his potential vice president. Is Trump’s choice a matter of hedging his bets on the Outsider principle, or is he publicly, albeit quietly, admitting what he previously disavowed: to run a classic Insider political organization, in this case the White House, you actually need some trained and experienced political hands at the wheel?

Ben Carson, of course, campaigned as an Outsider whose medical background left him free from any political Insider stain. Yet the man who ran Carson’s presidential campaign, Barry Bennett, worked as a staffer or Super PAC organizer for numerous GOP politicians, including Sen. Rob Portman, Gov. Rick Perry, and Liz Cheney. The headline of an October 2015 Reuters article about Bennett carried the headline: “Meet the Washington Insider Behind Ben Carson’s Outsider Campaign”. After jumping Carson’s sinking ship in December 2015, Bennett joined the staff of… oh, let’s just say he’s working on the campaign of a high profile Outsider.

Another example of the proud Outsider stance: Roger Ailes. As reported in a July 20 article in The Washington Post, the Fox honcho told C-SPAN in 2004 interview, “I think that my primary qualification for running a news channel is that I don’t have a degree in journalism.” So the (now former) head of an organization whose business is distributing news believes that having a formal education in compiling, analyzing, organizing, and disseminating news is a bad thing? Surely, one some basic level, that’s like Bill Gates saying he not only dropped out of Harvard, he’s quite proud he also avoided those useless schools that hand out computer science degrees.

Obviously the Outsider claim is just a blustery tactic to make oneself look like his or her own man or woman. Especially in politics, with the most obvious examples among Republicans like Trump, telling us he started out with a “small” million loan from his dad, and Ted Cruz, who publicly derided big banks including the one where his wife is an executive and which gave the couple a hefty bit of financing for his political aspirations.

Of course, there are long lists of people who reached the top of their chosen field through means other than traditional routes. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Take the example of the Foo Fighters, in my opinion the best rock band playing on this Earth. Front man Dave Grohl dropped out of high school in his junior year to join a punk band called Scream, with which he spent four years touring and recording before they disbanded. Grohl was forced to join another rock group, which enjoyed moderate success, called Nirvana. The rest is Rock and Roll Hall of Fame history.

Yet there are also numerous successful musicians who did, in fact, get a degree in the field. Berklee College of Music in Boston alone claims 107 Grammy Award winners among its alumni, including Melissa Etheridge, Jan Hammer (composer of the timeless classic, “Miami Vice Theme”), Joey Kramer (Aerosmith), Branford Marsalis, John Mayer, and some guy named Quincy Jones. These people earned a degree and worked all their lives in that field on their way to success, which is even more impressive considering that makes them Insiders in an industry that famously draws from Outsiders.

And then there are the physicians, scientists, jurists, academics, accountants, engineers, chefs and others who earned a (Insert Your Specialty Here) Degree and climbed a tall Insider ladder. There is an earned pecking order as well in the so-called Working Class (which, really, is a dumb, divisive classification: we all go to work, whether you construct the office building or you toil inside it.) For every plumber, there’s a young guy fetching parts from the van; for every master electrician, there’s a recent high school grad handing her the wires; for every work site supervisor or factory foreman, there’s a guy or gal pounding nails or carrying equipment. Everyone, in every field, starts at the bottom and gains experience on the way up before earning a spot to make decisions and direct others.

So we can plainly see that Insiders and Outsiders are equally valuable in the mixed bag of employment that has always made America great, right? Wrong. At least if you’re talking about politics.

So-called Outsiders claim that so-called Insiders have skewed perspectives or jaded ideas because they have been too long in the business. This trend is now at a point where millions of Americans are convinced that those with formal education and experience in a field – whether politicians or the journalists who cover politics – have disqualified themselves from the trust of those in Everyday America. We the People are asked to believe that, in politics and mainstream institutions such as the media, only Outsiders have what it takes to fix what the Insiders have spent years screwing up. Or, to borrow a phrase, to make America great again.

The end result is two-fold: those who are most qualified get passed over for someone who has a better pulled-up-by-my-bootstraps story or I’m-just-like-regular-folks fable; and less-qualified Outsiders who get the job inevitably still need experienced Insiders. Hence, Trump picking Pence, who is a career politician; or Carson choosing Bennett, who is a career political king maker; or Ailes (formerly) relying for ratings on Bill O’Reilly, who has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Boston University.

Finally, to put this Outsider vs. Insider issue into a more personal perspective, let’s consider what might happen if I decided to be the next greatest thing in writing advertising jingles, but only because I have no experience in doing so. I might pen a little ditty to tout the point I’m trying to put across with this article. Perhaps something like this:

Don’t naysay / Those who learned to play / The old-fashioned way

See, that’s horrible. I clearly need musical help. Maybe a world-wise, rule-breaking Outsider like Dave Grohl. Or an Insider entrenched in the mindset of the biz, like Quincy Jones. I’m sure either one would do – as Trump might say – a very, very good job.

Or, to put it in slightly more articulate terms I found among the quotes in John F. Kennedy’s library: “The legislation enacted by the Congress, as well as the decisions made by me and by the department and agency heads, must all be implemented by the career men and women in the Federal service…. We are all dependent on their sense of loyalty and responsibility as well as their competence and energy.”

(June 2016)

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