A Dearth of Vision: The Need for a New American Road


By Akio Matsumura

America’s leadership—in Washington and in each state—is gridlocked.  And instead of politicians and economists coming to the rescue, they are the ones causing the traffic jam.  Myopic leadership coupled with recycled policies are clogging the road forward.  Governor Jerry Brown’s victory in California encouraged me greatly.  His bold ideas will help California to close its yawning fiscal and social gaps, but we need individual leadership and creative vision across the board.  Some years ago I missed an opportunity to bring together some of the country’s most visionary minds to discuss our common future. Such a meeting, if held now, would help to energize America enormously.

Astronomer Carl Sagan at the Moscow Global Forum

A Timeless Visionary
In 1984, I went to Los Angeles to meet with former Governor Jerry Brown, who had just finished his two-term governorship of California.  Governor Brown came to my hotel and we sat in the lobby to discuss and share our perspectives for the world for the coming century.  Because I worked at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), I shared my concern for the increasing imbalance between the growing population—then projected to hit 7 billion by the year 2000 and 10 billion later in the century—and the availability and distribution of natural resources.  How would we deal with food, water, and natural resource shortages?  Governor Brown suggested we might send people to the Moon and avoid all of these problems.  Clearly we were discussing big ideas. We went on and on for hours.

Suddenly, Governor Brown stopped and asked, “Akio, what time is it?”  I was surprised that he was not carrying a watch, but told him it was 8:30 pm.  He jumped up.  “Akio, this is terrible! My father’s hosting a big dinner in my honor and I’m very late.”  He scolded me for talking too much and rushed out to catch a cab.

I have met so many political leaders throughout the world, but he is certainly one of the most unique.  I have never met a politician who practiced Zen in Japan, was full of unpredictable responses, carried no watch—and certainly never one who forgot a dinner held in honor because he was absorbed in conversation.

Thirty years later, despite running as part of a slogging Democratic Party and having a much weaker financial situation than his opponent, Governor Brown managed to make an extraordinary comeback and became governor of California for the third time. His creative and flexible mind, tightly honed political instinct, and sharp communication skills let him catch the attention of the younger generations while encouraging those frozen by their fear for the future.  But now he must get to work.

California’s economy is the eighth largest in the world, but is buried in deficit—the crisis extends across the entire state, from the school system to the police and fire departments.  California’s crisis is a detail of a much larger painting–America’s fiscal burden looms large.

Yet I have hope.  Governor Brown has the opportunity and ability to enact bold and difficult policies to rescue California and create a model for other states and the federal government. Vision comes only from the individual, not the institution.  The governor’s extraordinary vision can transcend the political straightjacket that binds his state and the country.  I hope he’s able to carry out his ideas, for the sake of California and the United States.

Visions from a Fading Star
At a lunch he once hosted for me, Governor Brown introduced me to actress Shirley MacLaine, who I came to know well when she attended my 1992 Parliamentary Earth Summit Conference in Rio de Janeiro. Shirley has produced many best selling books and is deeply in touch with the spiritual world.  I can certainly understand the bond between Shirley and Governor Brown. (Shirley and her large hearted, right hand person, Ms. Brit Elders, have always been kind enough to share my blog on her website.)

Together Shirley and I attended the inaugural State of the World Forum held in San Francisco.  Guest speakers included President Gorbachev and our mutual friend Dr. Carl Sagan, the American astronomer, with whom I had an agenda.  As I mentioned in a December 2008 post, I’ve always admired Carl’s enormous skill as a communicator. He could match any politician in his ability to explain a difficult concept.  At the conference we all knew that Carl, suffering with cancer, was in the final stage of his life.

During the coffee break, I mentioned to Shirley that Mother Teresa had said a person who is dying has the purest eyes. To me, this has always meant that a dying person can move beyond dogma into purer thoughts. Around this same time I had read an article describing a Cardinal in Chicago who, with only a few months to live, was spending all of his time visiting prisoners on death row to discuss their story and life. Each prisoner’s life was of the utmost concern to him.  My idea relied on Carl’s unique talents.  I wanted him to help convene and lead a one or two day meeting with the Cardinal and several other eminent leaders at the end stages of their life from the political, military and business sectors, free of media or any observers.  The goal was to listen and develop our mission for the next generations, an outcome that could only come from such experienced and eminent people freed from dogma and able to speak frankly in their final days.  Such a mission would surely be unmatched in its purity, uniqueness, and scope.

Shirley agreed this was an idea well worth discussing with Carl. Because of its delicate nature, I thought Shirley should bring the idea to Carl.  But she insisted it was my job, as he might question her motivation.  She had passed the hot potato back to me! I was thinking over and over how I could explain to Carl such a touchy issue, show my selfless motivation, and convince him of his essential role as convener and spokesman.  With an undecided mind I stood awaiting the elevator in the lobby of the conference building. The doors opened and, surprisingly, Carl walked right out! He saw me and asked if there was something I wanted to talk to him about.  I was caught by surprise and still hadn’t made up my mind as to the best approach.  “No, Carl,” I said and headed into the elevator.  That was the last time I saw him.   Shortly thereafter, I attended his memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Vice President Al Gore gave a eulogy, highlighting Carl’s extraordinary ability as communicator.

I regard this as an incredible opportunity to have missed.  Although we would be hard pressed to find someone with Carl’s talents to lead it, such a meeting wouldn’t clear America’s traffic jam; it would open a whole new road forward.

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