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Our Exuberant Mayor, Tony the Blogger

He doesn't post often, and his blog is far more diary than true blog, but D.C. Mayor Tony Williams, always something of a political mystery, is turning into an unusually open and fascinating dabbler in the art of the cyberconfessional.

The mayor, flush with the confidence of a lame duck, has even opened his comment boards, which is unusually gutsy for a sitting, high-level official. Williams posts citizen emails, complaints and kudos alike. And most surprisingly and most satisfyingly, he's using the blog to vent.

At the peak of the latest chapter in the baseball stadium soap opera, the mayor wrote:

How do I bear the relentless, incessant criticism? How do I function in a low - make that zero gratification - environment? How do I keep, or do I keep my wits in the midst of the cacophony we call local democracy?....

II know, one can savor the criticisms for lessons learned or sift the sands of experience for deeper meaning, and this sounds good. The problem comes when you realize a lot of the criticism is, while well-intentioned, uninformed, self-interested, and or inconsistent.

Not to spoil it for you, but eventually the mayor reveals that in such trying times, he turns to scripture for solace and motivation. That's of course a time-tested source of strength, but what's most remarkable here is that Williams, unlike almost any other major figure in American politics, is admitting to the difficulty of coping with the pressure and the criticism that are such an elemental part of the job.

You didn't hear Andy Card or the president acknowledging any such thing in their resignation performance this week.

And Williams' blog is hardly all complaint and confessional. At times, he is downright exuberant, not exactly a characteristic he manages to convey in public appearances. In fact, what's always frustrated me about this mayor is the disconnect between the personality he shows in small groups--witty, even laugh out loud funny, self-deprecating, even arch about the foolishness and staginess of politics--and the dour, uncomfortable, unemotional persona he too often displays in the public rituals of office.

I've just read Candice Millard's riveting new book on Theodore Roosevelt's post-presidency exploration of the unmapped and wild "River of Doubt" in Brazil, and the portrait of TR there is of a man who simply cannot contain his love of life and his hunger for contact with people and the world around him. There are moments in Tony Williams' blog when you can sense some of this exuberance, this joy in life and work .

But there are also dispiriting moments in which the mayor writes things that are oh so political and oh so obviously not true, such as his comical claim that, in the current debate over whether to build a new hospital on the site of the old D.C. General Hospital,

I think we would all agree that Howard University makes an ideal partner with the city in a premier health initiative, given the city and Howard's unique individual experiences and shared history.

Yeah, right.

Ok, so he is an elected official and he does have voting blocs to whom he is expected to cater. But the cool and fascinating question for the next generation of politiicans will be to what extent they will be held responsible for all the honest and open things they have said in blogs and Facebook and a million other corners of the web, and to what extent we will still expect them to tighten up their thinking and don the verbal shrinkwrap of American electoral politics.

Williams was elected because he was no politician. In his blog, he reminds us why he was such an attractive candidate that first time around and why he remains one of the most interesting, if flawed, mayors in the land. If he were 25, would he be cutting even looser online, and would that boost his political career or blow it out of the water?

By Marc Fisher |  March 30, 2006; 7:27 AM ET
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Interesting questions. Speaking w/o thinking as I am here, a couple of things popped into my consciousness as indications that certain kinds of looseness might become more acceptable in politics, if only because they are more acceptable in general.

First, although I can't put my fingers on the data, I have heard that college kids really don't care about gay marriage. Or, more accurately, the proportion of college kids who are opposed to gay marriage is much smaller for college kids than it is for older age groups. On the one hand, it's not surprising that young people are less conservative on this issue. On the other hand, this is an issue on which young people probably wouldn't have differed much from their elders as recently as 10 years ago.

Basically, there's more social acceptance of homosexuality. As it gets talked about more, people who are gay understand themselves more clearly at an earlier age, and they come out to their friends when their freinds are still relatively "unformed." I may be overidealizing high school here, not to mention covering a lot of ground quickly, but play along.

The general idea is: Here's a major area of personal life in which people don't feel that they have to keep to themsleves to the same degree as was the case in the past.

Another related area has to do with gender roles in heterosexual marriage. In Leslie Morgan Steiner's blog, I've been reading posts indicating that, although people are struggling a lot about how they should manage their lives, many young families (i.e., people in their earlyu- to mid-30s w/ young children) are really making a go of a form of family life that wasn't at all common even twenty years ago. SAHDs still constitute an extremely small portion of the population, but dads, whether SAH or not, are more involved with their kids than they were a generation or more ago in the intimate ways that mothers have always been.

I think the experience of consciously working out ways of parenting with their wives and the real day-to-day ups and downs of life in the sandbox bring men into an explicitly emotional realm that they have, in the past, tended to be on the periphery of.

Generalizing wildly here, handwaving madly, extrapolating unjustifiably, but rushing right ahead . . . It may be that this mix of opportunities (i.e., to be out of the closet at an earlier age) and requirements (i.e., to be engaged on a practical and emotional level on mundane and trying but essential aspects of life) will give rise politicians who can actually have the courage and emotional/psychological wherewithal to say what it feels like to be who they are and to be more authentic about why they're doing what they're doing.

I think it wouldn't blow a politician's career out of the water, but the gender issues are complex. Women should probably keep their moments of discombobulation to themselves for another generation or so, but men may be able to get away with being more forthright, as long as doing so doesn't undermine the impression that they can be "take charge" guys.

Enough speculation for now.

Gosh, it's hard to write in this little box!

Posted by: THS | March 30, 2006 8:57 AM

OK, maybe just one more bit of speculation. I thought you'd never ask.

I think people are dying for authenticity in political leaders. In the last presidential election, we had the smart guy who could talk endlessly without ever making a clear, credible statement or conveying the idea that he was saying what he really thought, and we had the other guy, who could, from time to time, moderately entertaining in a down-home way, but nonetheless failed to answer the question, a pattern that continues to this day.

I would be thrilled to hear from a politician who could speak about either policies or personal experiences in a way that seemed genuine and heartfelt.

Posted by: THS | March 30, 2006 9:12 AM

And now a request: Could you consult w/ the blog rulers about making the comments appear in larger type? If Achenbach and Steiner can get this accommodation, you should bang on the table until you get it too. And, while you're there, ask for a preview button. All the cool blogs have them.

Posted by: THS | March 30, 2006 9:14 AM

How is a blog that's a diary not a "true blog"? It *is* a blog. It's on the web. It logs things. Ergo, blog. You seem to think all blogs are like Wonkette.

Posted by: h3 | March 30, 2006 10:39 AM

The mayor's blog is very cool, Marc. Thanks for pointing it out.

He does, indeed, sound like he could be more engaging and, to qoute the poster above, authentic in the he speaks to people in public. He certainly has a nice mix of seriousness and humor in his writing.

I was surprised to see the kinds of things he puts his hands on. I don't know much about the inner workings of government, but I'd have expected some of those things to be paseed off before they came to him.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 30, 2006 11:34 AM

Ok, I'm happy to ask the bosses for bigger type. But what's a preview button?

Posted by: Fisher | March 30, 2006 11:38 AM

A preview button allows you to see all of what you've written before you post it. You can see an example at Jay Rosen's PressThink blog: http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2006/03/24/bd_wapo.html

Scroll all the way down in the center column.

Posted by: THS | March 30, 2006 11:59 AM

I thought the passage below was one of the more interesting statements in the Mayor's blog.

"Seventy percent of the time we’re taking dinner orders and it’s our job to salute smartly and serve our boss, the citizens. Thirty percent of the time, however, we’re required to lead, whatever the hardships and discontent."

I liked the statement. Like about 60% of the public, I've had it w/ the federal government. Neither the president nor Congress seems to be able to serve adequately (e.g., make FEMA work, manage their budget negotiations so that the number of earmarks isn't increasing faster than the population), and there doesn't seem to be much leadership either. It's a very sad, frustrating time--for me, that is; for others, it's a dangerous time.

Do you think Mayor Williams has succeeded in governing at the about the 70% service/30& leadership ratio that he recommends?

Posted by: J. Rae | March 30, 2006 1:09 PM

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