Thanks to Andy Sabl’s initiative, last night I not only got to hear Adam Michnik – leader of KOR and one of the central figures of the overthrow of Communism in Poland, and now the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza – but also to go to dinner with him afterwards. Too often, hearing and meeting one of the heroes of one’s youth is a formula for disappointment. Not so in this case: as a speaker Michnik is acute, engaging, and funny, and as a dinner-table companion he is completely fascinating.
At dinner, MIchnik asked an excellent question to which neither Andy nor I could provide a satisfactory answer: “Who in contemporary America has moral authority?” (I took this to mean both “moral authority you are prepared to accept” and “enough public standing to be an actual force.” Tom Schelling, for example, has the intellectual force, the moral clarity, and the nerve, but not the notoriety, nor the impulse to seek it out.) I could come up with only one name: Barack Obama. Could it really be true that there is no other political leader, journalist, academic, religious figure, business leader, trade unionist currently active with the stature to summon people to action based on moral authority as opposed to self-interest?
It seems to me that the field wasn’t always so empty. Adlai Stevenson had authority, and William Fitts Ryan. So did Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite. And the civil-rights pantheon: Martin Luther King of course, but also Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Ted Hesburgh.
Consider the floor open for nominations.