Sitting on the bench, for now

Two leading women speaking at this year’s major political party conventions brushed their hair better than celebrity visitor Clint Eastwood and had the wit to leave empty chairs where they belonged – out of sight in the wings, not in the spotlight.

Yet former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, a Republican, and first lady Michelle Obama, a Democrat, didn’t see or hear their speeches ignite the nation in a blaze of publicity. Instead, the two were left to watch their words pretty much waft away like smoke while national news outlets talked incessantly about Eastwood, the good ole boy, and his tough words for President Obama, unseen and unheard in that empty chair.

The gig lit up with attention. But it wasn’t informative. It wasn’t new. Tough as it is to find fault with Clint, his schtick was as old as the hills.

You may already have seen that for yourself. Growing up in Maine back in the days when weekend movies at places like the Auburn Theatre meant a new B-rated film on the screen and five acts of vaudeville on stage, an empty chair was often featured. The chair co-starred with a stand-up comedian who needed a foil and wanted one that worked cheap. In his role as emcee, the comedian, usually the fourth act on the bill, set up the empty chair and talked as fast as he could, both to cover the blue in some of his jokes and to keep his audience awake for the rest of his patter. The empty chair always agreed.

And so it was in Tampa, 50 years later. Blue jokes have given way to blush-red claims and errors Otherwise, nothing much has changed at all.

Condolezza Rice came to the GOP’s convention in Tampa armed with facts, figures and some new thoughts on how to get our country’s powerful economic engines pumping with Mitt Romney at the helm. No jokes. No furniture shuffled around. No giggles with the good old boys. Rice came to the convention as a leader, and she spoke like one. Then she and her thoughtful words disappeared.

A week later, you could say much the same thing about Democrats gathered in Charlotte, N.C. Michelle Obama had a job to do and she was well prepared. Her facts and figures were polished to a fine shine, set to make the case for re-electing her husband and president. In addition, she had warm stories about her family, stories that humanized her husband, stoked his likability index and enhanced him as a caring, middle-class man. As with Rice, she spoke without pandering or pleas. She spoke as a leader, a wife and an activist who knew and, in fact, had helped write the score. Like Condolezza Rice, Michelle Obama had no need of empty chairs. Her head was already full of facts and insights she was ready to share. She was ready to go.

And that’s key when you look at it long enough. Preparing for leadership in modern public life needs to emphasize both the leadership ambition and the preparing. Otherwise an ambitious person may be left dragging around a three-legged stool. propping up a three-legged argument she found in the wings.

Sadly, however, it really didn’t seem to matter this year. The primary woman in American politics remained untouched by the national media’s focus on the two conventions. The fact is, she didn’t even show up. Democrat Hillary Clinton was in another hemisphere, busy at her day job as U.S. secretary of state. Yet, as Frank Bruni noted in a New York Times column, “Like a poltergeist in a pantsuit Hillary Clinton haunted Charlotte.” And the haunting stretched all the way to Tampa.

Researchers for both Democrats and Republicans should be testing that apparition. Whatever Hillary is planning, there are more American women and girls behind her.

They are potential leaders preparing for greatness.

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