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Exceptionalism should be demanded of our public servants

• May 2, 2019 at 3:00 PM

I recently listened to a few hours of the NFL Draft. It’s not sit-around-in-your-PJs-with-a-glass-of-wine listening, but for an hour on the way to a night shift, it passes the time.

I’m not a huge NFL fan. It has nothing to do with kneeling, although I would watch it more often if more people kneeled. Still, I find the draft interesting. A collection of young men gather and learn their fate for the next 3-4 years of their lives. After 3-4 years of college football, and 3-4 months of testing, running, throwing, catching, poking and prodding, their worth is ranked by 32 general managers and they are selected by their future teams.

Each team is trying to find the next Tom Brady in the sixth round. For the first day, each is targeting their “sure thing” in the first round who will immediately elevate the team to the next level.

The first round is the ultimate homage to exceptionalism in sport. No one is competing, but their past accomplishments and future potential are amalgamated in a cocktail by 32 would-be gurus, each with the certainty that their guy will make the difference.

We celebrate this exceptionalism each fall when hundreds of thousands flock to stadiums across the country, doling out hundreds of dollars each to watch a modern-day gladiatorial spectacle, thankfully with willing participants making millions of dollars to display their talents and tenacity. The fact that the yearly salary of the 53rd player on the roster is a half a million dollars, which is 15 times the median individual salary in the U.S., tells us the value we place on exceptionalism in sport.

In entertainment, the lowest net worth of an “American Idol” contestant I could find was $600,000 for William Hung, a young man who did not make it out of auditions, but achieved viral success from his version of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.” The Season 4 winner, Carrie Underwood, is worth an estimated $85 million.

Meanwhile, nearly half of all households in Michigan struggle to afford the basics: rent, food, health care, child care and transportation. According to the United Way, a family of four in Michigan needs a wage of $30.64 per hour just to make ends meet.

As a society, we clearly place a huge degree of value on the physical and musical talents of individuals. I do not begrudge them for making millions from their hard work and natural abilities. As a Division 3 college football player and one-time Men’s Glee Club member at MSU, I had fleeting dreams of such success. My lack of skill and talent, despite the effort, made profiting from those pursuits a fantasy, so I had to rely on 11 years of advanced education and training to become an expert in my field and an exceptional emergency physician. And while I will never be worth one-tenth of Carrie Underwood’s net worth, nor make half a million dollars a year, I am fortunate to earn a living doing something I care about and provide a comfortable living for my family.

If we, as a collective people, have such high regard for athletes, performers and professionals in their field that we place a dollar value on their achievement, why is exceptionalism in public service largely derided by voters and a good chunk of the political establishment?

I never understood why George W. Bush was popular simply because he was a guy some voters “wanted to have a beer with.” I understood why the wealthy class would celebrate him for reckless tax cuts, or war profiteers would support him for dubious justifications for endless war, but for the “average” person whose inflation-adjusted income hasn’t changed for more than four decades, why support the lowest common denominator?

John Kerry unsuccessfully ran against Bush in 2004 while the latter’s approval rating hovered around or below 50 percent for most of the election year. Despite honorary service in Vietnam while Bush wasn’t reporting for duty in the Air National Guard, videos of Kerry windsurfing along with his East Coast education and upbringing and long-winded professorial answers tagged him as an elitist. The policies were less of the debate topic, but the terms “more relatable” and “regular guy” were thrown about ad nausea.

Similarly, President Obama was tagged early on as a liberal elitist. Racist birtherism aside (wait, who perpetuated that? another column), much of the attacks against Obama had to do with his elitist tendencies. Somehow, it was forgotten that he was raised by a single mother and her parents, excelled academically and attended prestigious Occidental College, then Columbia University and Harvard Law. Despite his very regular position as devoted husband to Michelle and doting father to Malia and Sasha, his lofty rhetoric and expansive vocabulary were potential political suicide. One might surmise that had the Republicans put a befuddled “W” clone up against him in 2012, he may not have won re-election.

I would argue that the same level of exceptionalism that is demanded of the top 32 NFL prospects each year should be demanded of our would-be public servants at every level. I want my president to be the smartest person in the room. I lament the fact that our current president can barely put together a coherent sentence at rallies, and cannot be bothered with more than a one-page, bullet-point-laden infrequent intelligence briefing.

The world is complex. While no one person can possibly know or anticipate every situation with which they may be presented as commander-in-chief, it would be reassuring to think that the individual elected to that high office would possess the intellectual capacity to internalize the data presented by other experts in their respective fields, and would land on a suitable solution to any number of scenarios not heretofore imagined.

So, the next time I tune in while preparing our Sunday meal, I will revel at the 30-yard bullet thrown by Matthew Stafford to T.J. Hockenson on an out route for a first down in the fourth quarter. In less than two years, I hope to be able to switch to CNN and revel at the complex answers to pointed questions being lobbied at our next president rather than suffering the incoherent word salad of the current occupier of the Oval Office.

— By Dr. Rob Davidson, Tribune community columnist

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