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The Importance of Choosing Good Leaders

Earlier this month, I took time out from covering the presidential campaign to attend my high school reunion in Denver. It was a wonderful, three-day affair that ended with a dance at a downtown hotel. The suggested dress for the evening was "cocktail or red and blue."

Not knowing these were our school colors, a classmate's wife wondered aloud why the organizers were trying to separate red-state Republicans from blue-state Democrats. She was perhaps imagining the scene from a recent Doonesbury strip in which the Walden reunion tent is divided between those for and against President Bush. (White wine is available only on the "against" side of the tent.)

Fortunately, there was no such division among the Manual High School class of 1984. We all drank whatever wine we wanted, danced to whatever songs we chose, and talked more about children and receding hairlines than about who will be president come January.

I thought about that while reading David Brooks' new book, On Paradise Drive, in which he likens the supposed polarization of America to the scene in a high school cafeteria: "The jocks sit here, the geeks sit there, the drama people sit over there, and the druggies sit somewhere else. All the different cliques know the others exist, and there are some tensions. But they go to different parties, have slightly different cultures, talk about different things, and see different realities. Although individuals may live in two or three overlapping cliques, the cliques don't know much about one another, and they all regard the others as vaguely pathetic."

This isn't a formula for conflict, Brooks argues. It's a way to avoid conflict through voluntary segmentation, like Darwin's finches in a 10th-grade Galapagos. You've got your table and I've got mine. It works, in large part, because America's cafeteria has such an abundance of different tables. If you can't find one to your liking, there's always the patio outside.

That's pretty much the way it worked at my school. But two decades later, we were still able to push our tables together and celebrate what we had in common. Much of the credit for that goes to the student leaders we elected back in high school -- our class's Head Girl and Head Boy, who understood that the reunion was a party for all to attend, Red and Blue together.

I have a souvenir from the weekend: a CD the organizers made with songs from our senior year. It's an eclectic mix that spans ZZ Top and Run-DMC. Even in 1984, it's doubtful that any single radio station would have played all the tracks enjoyed by my classmates and me (though it's possible Prince, Kenny Loggins, and Cyndi Lauper might have shared time on a Top 40 frequency). On today's more balkanized radio dial, the Manual mix wouldn't stand a chance. But the reunion organizers understood that our shared soundtrack should include something for everyone.

One can go too far, of course, with this "to each his own" attitude. Both Chaka Kahn and Culture Club can be annoying when played too loudly on your neighbor's boom box. And the problem doesn't go away just because your neighbor switches to a Walkman or an iPod. As Brooks concedes, "the problems we're more likely to observe during our drive through suburbia are withdrawal, segmentation, and disunion.... Then what happens to this common enterprise we call America?"

What the enterprise needs is a national Head Boy (or Head Girl) who can bring the jocks and the geeks together, who can find common ground between the fans of Rush Limbaugh and the fans of Al Franken.

Witnessing just such a feat during our reunion, one of my classmates marveled, "Who knew 20 years ago how important it was to choose good leaders?"

In 2004, we know.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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