History of Hubris

As Ed FitzGerald becomes county executive this month, Cleveland's past few decades offer a cautionary tale: Arrogance destroyed some of our most promising leaders.

Every political campaign features a cat and mouse contest between the media and the politician. Reporters frame candidates simply, seeking to match strengths and weaknesses as if sorting a tray of nuts and bolts.

The candidates hire advisers with rich hourly rates — usually people who once sorted the nuts and bolts — to counter the media's inevitable criticism. Once the candidates discover it is their personality that counts, and not the issues, they generally hold the media in quiet contempt.

The campaign is a trial for the candidates, a test the media conduct, fairly or unfairly, to define a candidate's character. Among the least desirable traits the ordeal can expose is arrogance.

That is why, in the campaign for county executive, reporters alluded to arrogance and ambition in Ed FitzGerald's DNA. Critics say FitzGerald pushed the bounds of authority and talked down to people during his three years as mayor of Lakewood. He is known to never forget a political enemy.

However, early returns from his two months as county executive-elect show him to be a direct and perhaps beguiling figure. The question after his convincing victory is, will he govern with hubris or humility?

I raise this not so much as a criticism of FitzGerald — for it's too early for fair judgment — but as a way to chart his progress.

I never enjoyed reporting about politics. But I did time in that netherworld and learned that a good way to judge politicians is by the degree of their arrogance.

The ingredients of any successful candidate are leavened with hubris. It drives them to be who they are. But too often, once in office, politicians seem to perceive the electorate here as indifferent, uninformed or even ignorant. That arrogance has consumed some of our city's best, most promising leaders.

After Carl Stokes' victory in the 1967 mayor's race, a sense of accomplishment and hope swept the city like I never saw again. It was better than a World Series win or a Super Bowl. The election of the handsome, charming, eloquent Stokes as the first black mayor of a major U.S. city represented why America was created.

But Stokes' mythical image shattered immediately after the election, when reporters were barred from their usual entry to the mayor's office, an act of contempt to a media that had been more than friendly.

It was a harbinger of things to come. As mayor, Stokes lost touch. I once saw him physically restrained by federal officials after he threatened to strike a suburban councilman in a meeting in Washington. His arrogance cost him the media, friends and his reputation. It was a long fall for Stokes, and the city tumbled with him.

When Dennis Kucinich was elected the city's youngest mayor, he brought the promise and freshness of a new generation. But the mercurial Kucinich's arrogance cast the city into chaos and finally into default. The memory of that failure still hangs around like a bad cold.

Many viewed Mayor Mike White as a superior leader with the skills of an exemplary salesman, a man who could go far. He had the confidence that a city suffering from an inferiority complex needed. Gateway was completed under his early watch and for a time invigorated downtown. But White's arrogance in ignoring the warning signs regarding old Municipal Stadium's financial operations and its impact on Art Modell played a role in the Browns' move to Baltimore. Afterward, White's arrogant decision to build a new stadium on valuable lakefront land was a terrible mistake.

By the time White left office, his uncontrolled arrogance and countless political feuds had divided the city. The spread of municipal corruption engineered by his best friend left him with a damning legacy.

In the 1970s, Tim Hagan emerged with glowing notices of his promise as a leader. But Hagan fell victim to his own hubris. Twice a county commissioner, he failed in lackluster efforts to run for mayor and governor. His magisterial bearing turned imperious when he helped force a tax increase for the convention center and Medical Mart and manipulated its management. Hagan's condescending answer to his critics — "It's not a direct democracy; it's a representative democracy" — exhibited one of the classic signs of political arrogance: The politician hails the electorate as a font of wisdom for having elected him but makes decisions with no regard for public opinion.

Of all our recent leaders, history will be kindest to Mayor George Voinovich. Modest in demeanor, deliberate in decision, Teflon to political adversity, Voinovich gave the city a shining moment. During the 1980s, his reserved personality was a perfect counterweight to city council president George Forbes, among our most dynamic, outrageous and controversial political figures. Together, they brought a respite from the cynical Cleveland jokes.

Arrogance comes in different forms. Take Mayor Frank Jackson, a stubborn man, often remote from the realities of running a major city. He will be remembered for uttering, "It is what it is," when confronted with one municipal problem after another.

Jackson's arrogant reliance on his appointees on the port authority board and their wildly unrealistic waterfront development strategy lost time and cost millions. His failure to grasp the changing political dynamic that put FitzGerald in office left Cleveland without a seat at the table when the new county charter was written, further ensuring its decline as a political entity.

Now, with reform comes Ed FitzGerald, a man with a great opportunity. I want him to do well, for the sake of all of us. When I saw him at Johnny's the other day, I spoke with uncharacteristic spontaneity. I asked him not to disappoint us. He said he would try his best. I want to believe that.

When the emperors returned in glory to Rome, bringing victory and riches, they received mighty acclaim. Beside them stood servants. Amid the tumult, these servants whispered to the emperors to remember they were but mere mortals.

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