The Politics of Dinners With Exes

In the last few months, I've had fun dinners with three exes. Not all at the same time -- that would have been overwhelming. But ex-President George W. Bush, Peru's ex-President Alejandro Toledo, and Bolivia's ex-President Jorge Quiroga are all important public figures who are dealing with managing their status as former heads of state. All three started their jobs this century, and all three led revolutions in governance. They are also now undergoing a process that sociologists call reputational laundering, and have used the Arab Spring as part of that process. George W. served BBQ on a hot night in Dallas after a media event organized by the new research institute that bears his name. The portrait of the Bush twins loomed over the dinner table, and everyone animatedly avoided politics. When I joked that I had married a woman from Kentucky and was committed to Kentucky BBQ over Texas BBQ, his response was to serve me only vegetables. Later in the year, Toledo, Quiroga and I joined an official team to observe Tunisia's first democratic elections. Dinners were also animated but always about politics. And we drank lots of coffee. At one coffee break I nursed two espressos while Toledo put away four espressos and then went for a snooze. Quiroga downed six espressos and then went for a jog.

Revolutions in Myopia

These leaders changed their countries in significant ways and orchestrated revolutions in governance that had different aspects by resulted in similar levels of political myopia. Bush's revolution was to politicize bureaucratic appointments in way not seen for decades and support media "echo chambers" that would reproduce his message. Bush helped build a new media ecology for the Republicans, one that punished party leaders who drifted off message and allowed for regular use of faith-based keywords with specific appeal. In this new myopia, Republican leaders used terms that neither issue experts nor political opponents used, and they perfected the modern mechanism by which average citizens now encounter political candidates -- rigged town hall meetings that are by invitation only. Bush's presidential administration left the United States with bounded media publics where talk radio, Fox News, political websites and social media keep Republicans -- leadership and followers -- on message and out of substantive debates on issues.

One might think that Toledo and Quiroga would have nothing to do with each other. Toledo led a movement of Peru's poor and indigenous communities to overthrow a dictator, and he built a government well-tuned to social needs. Quiroga led a movement of technocrats that temporarily resulted in a more professional public bureaucracy. Quiroga campaigned against corruption and hired lots of MBAs. Whereas Toledo lead a modern peasant revolution with the consequence that every subsequent head of state in the region must deal seriously with indigena issues, Quiroga tried to privatize Bolivian water. Both Toledo's populist sensitivity and Quiroga's professionalized administration had consequences beyond their country's borders and their terms of office. Toledo presided over prosperity but may have also set up the institutional arrangements that now make it difficult for political leaders to negotiate between indigena and national development priorities (these two things are not always the same). Quiroga's technocrats may not have been sufficiently sensitive. The project to privatize water galvanized an international social movement, becoming a hot button issue for events like the world social forums, anti-globalization protests, and the massive marches into La Paz that eventually ended his term.

There are obvious differences between these three Exes. Bush was head of state while the economy tanked and national security was under threat. Toledo managed to defeat his country's terrorist threat, the Shining Path. Quiroga may stand the best chance of serving his country again one day. Yet these three heads of state may be the best examples of the three styles of administrative governance -- politicization, populism, and professionalization -- that we now see in democracies and emerging democracies around the world.

Reputational Laundering

They are all similar in that public perception of their legacy is mixed. In their own countries, people still talk about them. But the index of their popularity -- the gap between their approval ratings and their disapproval ratings -- is small. Depending on the month, the number of people who fondly remember the Bush, Quiroga and Toledo years is not more than the number who regret those years. (Though Toledo earned a respectable thid place when he recently ran for reelection.) If you pretended to be objective, you might argue that these poor popularity scores are simply the truth about their reputations and impact. If you took an ideological position, you might argue that political opponents have used the media to influence how we think of these leaders.

But trying to be objective or ideological sufficiently explains the competitive nature of reputational politics, and the different ways in which these leaders got involved in the events of the Arab Spring. Regardless of what you think of these three men as leaders, there is the question of whether or not they are good ex-presidents. Now that they are out of office, they have become reputationally entrepreneurial, or have hired reputational entrepreneurs to help them think about how to be good ex-presidents. My take on their success is shaped by the news media, but also by a few dinner dates.

In Tunisia, Toledo and Quiroga demonstrated that they do public service at a global level. Toledo and Quiroga got involved by lending their names to an observing mission in the first country to run democratic elections. Bush got involved by running a fundraising event in Dallas for his new Institute, on the topic of the Arab Spring. In Dallas, George W. eventually did come back around the table and serve me some of his BBQ. But this form of public service still seemed like tactical exposure.

(Disclosure: The George W. Bush Institute has provided financial support for my research and participation in the fundraising event.)