When you read the story of a well-crafted pursuit, you learn something about the timeless principles that produce greatness. And greatness is for all of us—but too often we mistakenly think it only exists in the trivial size of a following, the work that’s elevated to a higher status, or the fake construct of elitism. Similar to The Wright Brothers, the Daring Young Men behind the Berlin Airlift, and Steve Jobs, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown reveals a new story of freedom for American politics, if only we will choose to write it.
What we see in each of these stories is that greatness is born when no one is following, that any work can become a masterpiece, and that in the pursuit of greatness all men truly are created equal.
While there are good people with even better intentions working in American politics—many of them my friends—I think we all know deep down that there’s a story of freedom that’s richer, fuller, and deeper than anything we have yet imagined for us to write.
The American political process has much to learn from the pursuit of Olympic Gold. We say we fight for freedom, but too often we fight each other; we forget to live free. If the Olympics were to devolve to the same level of dysfunction as the Congress or American political discourse, it would be like watching the WWE—only it would be real, and miserably unentertaining, never inspiring.
Mercifully, that is not the case. But in considering the sport of rowing at the Olympic Games, specifically in the context of the 1936 team from Washington, how do we reimagine political discourse? We should first gain a clear picture of the sport itself:
There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. It’s called “swing.” It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of sync with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action—each subtle turning of wrists—must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars. Only then will it feel as if the boat is a part of each of them, moving as if on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation. Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like. (p. 161).
American political discourse can rise to the level of the poetic. I don’t mean that every speech, every debate, and every Facebook comment thread should be epic, rising above the moment. And yet if we are going to live as free people, we need a much better vision for what good craft is. So what’s holding us back?
ROWING REQUIRES PAIN
We have to be willing to endure the pain—the hard, focused, intentional work it will take to rethink our communication. Rowing might be poetic at its best, but it is also painful. As Daniel James Brown illustrates for us, even though one sits while rowing, the sport still uses virtually every muscle in the body.
The result of all this muscular effort, on both the larger scale and the smaller, is that your body burns calories and consumes oxygen at a rate that is unmatched in almost any other human endeavor. Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a tow-thousand-meter race—the Olympic standard—takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes. (pp. 39-40).
He continues describing the effect of rowing on the entire body, and concludes this way:
It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you. (p. 40).
The call for Truth and Beauty to be the defining characteristics of political communication is not a call for ease: it’s a call to endure the pain of heightened focus, deeper research, and thoughtful debate. It’s a call to put in the effort when no one is watching, when no one is following.
ROWING REQUIRES CRAFTSMANSHIP
Rowing would be impossible without a master craftsman first building a world-class racing shell. Personally, my greatest inspiration from The Boys in the Boat came not from “the boys”, as much as it did from “the boat,” or rather, the boat builder, George Pocock.
In politics, too often we focus on being busy, or proving we “have what it takes,” and we give speeches, we use a lot of words—we go through the motions of rowing. But we never value the work it takes to make rowing possible by investing in a good racing shell. We might learn to talk, but we don’t see language as an art. But Pocock’s work with wood can lead us deeper into this new knowledge of freedom.
At one point in the book, George called Joe Rantz, the main character of the story, up to his shop in the shell house.
As Pocock talked, Joe grew mesmerized. It wasn’t just what the Englishman was saying, or the soft, earthy cadence of his voice, it was the calm reverence with which he talked about the wood—as if there was something holy and sacred about it—that drew Joe in. The wood, Pocock murmured, taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves. About the reasons we were all here.
“Sure, I can make a boat,” he said, and then added, quoting the poet Joyce Kilmer, “’But only God can make a tree.’” (p. 214).
Do we have a perspective this deep for our work each day? In politics, we are almost constantly viewing work as glamorous or not glamorous. And what we miss is that work is neither. It’s an opportunity to hone a craft, and create. When we see work as glamorous, it stunts our ability to be honest or authentic about how to do the job well because we have to make an effort to live up to the façade of glamor, and when we see work as not glamorous, it stunts our ability to offer creative solutions, or find innovative ideas because we’ve forced it into the box of non-glamorous which is by nature so small it is stifling. This kind of thinking is unfortunately what has created the caste system in Congress, where your value and worthiness and ability to attend meetings to do the work of Congress is found in the title on your business card—regardless of the fact that those titles quickly change from year to year.
ROWING REQUIRES TRUST
Finally, we too often let political communication devolve into strident discourse because we have lost our ability to trust our fellow Americans. And the lack of trust has completely eroded our ability to solve problems.
As I write this, I’m fully aware that humans don’t always have good intentions. I’m fully aware that trust is often broken—which I’ve experienced personally. And I’m also writing the first draft of this journal the day after the bombing at the Istanbul airport, reminded again that evil does exist in our world, and does so forcefully.
The call for political communication to be beautiful is not a call to ignore these realities. It’s a call to see the same evil within us all, and to redeem it by holding the pain inside and writing a better story. In fact, I would argue that it’s because terror exists in our world that political communication must take a turn for the better. While others are instigating fear and death, we can cultivate life.
Having experienced broken trust in my life, I find that the words of George Pocock in another conversation with Joe Rantz resonate deeply:
He told Joe that there were times when he seemed to think he was the only fellow in the boat, as if it was up to him to row the boat across the finish line all by himself. When a man rowed like that, he said, he was bound to attack the water rather than to work with it, and worse, he was bound not to let his crew help him row. (p. 234).
He told Joe to be careful not to miss his chance. He reminded him that he’d already learned to row past pain, past exhaustion, past the voice that told him it couldn’t be done. That meant he had an opportunity to do things most men would never have a chance to do. And he concluded with a remark that Joe would never forget. “Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.” (p. 235).
While we fear so much that our trust will be broken, we fail to realize our fellow Americans are our fellow Americans. We see our neighbors who think differently as obstacles to greatness instead of teammates in greatness. Most importantly, those in elected office fear giving the electorate higher quality communication—perhaps we fear that communicating what needs to be said, or refusing to focus on the drama of politics, won’t gain attention and result in re-election. But what if the populace begins to imagine something better? And not just demand it, but to live it too?
When I started outlining my thoughts for this journal, I pulled a book off the shelf—Dr. Frank Luntz’s Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. Few people have listened to the American people as thoroughly as Luntz has, and so regardless of what you think of him or his suggestions, it’s worth a read because it helps us understand the American mind, to the extent that there is such a thing.
I read it first several years ago, and as I flipped through it, I wanted to find a quote about how speaking beautifully has to be genuine, how you can’t fake it, and you can’t just use poll-tested words and expect everyone to fall in line with what you are proposing. But then it hit me: the subtitle of his work holds the key to the dilemma of creating beautiful political communication. It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.
Too often, this is exactly the premise for political communication. We live in an age where we see elected officials, Members of Congress and others, not as teammates in our boat but as authority figures who are servants of the public and must always be questioned lest they become elitist. And there’s truth in the idea that power can corrupt—but no matter what your view of a specific Member of the House is, for example, we have elections every two years and they can be voted out if they lose touch.
Having worked in politics for about ten years, here’s my challenge to the grassroots: flip Luntz’s thesis on its head. We all want our elected officials to listen to us, but as we clamor to be heard, we forget to listen to them. We hear what we want to hear, and if we don’t, we make them pay for it. We don’t trust them, and we don’t trust each other, and we don’t trust the rest of the world, either.
When we live this way, there’s no room for political nuance, no room for paradox, no room for big visions and work to get there. We need a vision for engagement in politics that’s greater than outrage and protest. It’s time to demand that political communication be beautiful, not by picketing or ranting online, but by thoughtful research into the tough complexities of issues. It’s time to vote for candidates who aren’t willing to demagogue but would rather elevate our political discourse. And while they often do the homework we cannot do, it’s time for us to have informed opinions instead of just opinions. When all we hear in American political discourse is noise, maybe no one is listening.
The truth is, Congress reflects the grassroots and the grassroots reflects the visions given them by Congress, the media, and others. Here’s to turning the story upside down.
If you’re a follower of Jesus, these ideas have added significance. We can engage in politics with open hands, knowing the end of the story doesn’t hinge on the America we can preserve for future generations. We can risk our trust being broken, we can create excellent work when no one is watching, and we can even endure pain because there is one we can trust forever and ever.
As we think back to 1936 and the games in Berlin, let’s wander even further back.
We are saved from our sin ultimately because Jesus decided to do something two thousand years ago. And based upon his grace, his mercy, and his love in coming to us, sinners totally unable to save ourselves, we have been invited to follow him. (David Platt, Follow Me, p. 44).
So here’s to letting that confidence overtake us. Here’s to reflecting that goodness in all of our political communication. Here’s to turning political communication, like Olympic rowing, into an art. Here’s to enduring the pain of speaking healing into political dysfunction, creating a functional Congress, and building trust with our colleagues, Here’s to crafting talking points from a heart of poetic goodness, the first and the last line being LIBERATUS—we are set free.
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
What’s your favorite Olympic sport? If you’re physically able, get your friends together and try it out. Or, if you’d rather, talk to an athlete who has competed at any level about the pain, craftsmanship, and trust required to excel—and take notes for how those same truths apply to your work in American politics!
LIBERATUS is a weekly journal creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty by empowering writers in American politics to tell the story of healing through freedom. You can join the pursuit by applying to write, subscribing to the journal, or by funding the movement through monthly giving or by making a purchase in our store.