Showhorses and Workhorses

The mistaken goal of being seen strays far from what someone elected to public office should want. It says “showhorse” and “phony” at the same time.

The inescapable hothouse of national politics that has consumed many Americans for the last five years may finally be getting more fresh air.  The election brought on a dramatic shift in power that has made it possible to witness the refreshing sight of some “workhorses” replacing “showhorses” who mostly just feigned administrative competence.

The equestrian reference is an old canard about politics repeated by practitioners and observers alike.  A showhorse is an individual who is primarily a self-promoter. Interest in working with deliberative and administrative processes is limited or non-existent. It’s been said about many senators that you could be run over if you accidently came between a specific member and a group of reporters. In contrast, a workhorse is someone who seeks progress on specific policy or oversight goals, not requiring the limelight to be motivated.

This second breed is less common. Fewer people who offer themselves up to be leaders or legislators at the federal level are interested in the hard work required to build coalitions and find routes to compromise. They do exist. But their very anonymity in our media makes it even harder to notice their hard work. For example, there is a group of seven women in the House of Representatives who are trying to put together a package of immigration reforms.  Representative Linda Sanchez describes all of them as “not doing it for the glory or for the credit,” but to repair a broken system. Their names– Lofgren, Roybal-Allard, Velázquez, Chu, Clarke and Bass–are mostly unfamiliar. Members like these are content to broker solutions without using them as springboards to fame.

We are in a prolonged period where more leaders are attracted to federal electoral offices for the performance chances they offer. Cameras and interviews mean celebrity recognition and a puffed-up sense of self-importance. These people who want to be known as “players” see their chances for power mostly in their ability to build their own “brand” and maybe shape public opinion.


For Trump, being the President was far more interesting than functioning as a President.

President Donald Trump’s pleasure at playing to the crowd was so obvious that it at times its unintended humor was better than what the comics at SNL could think up.  And remember the crowd that had to be gassed and removed so he could walk across the street from the White House to be photographed in front of a church clutching a bible like an Olympic medal? He craved media coverage. The same distorted priority was revealed on January 6 in his unwillingness to call the National Guard to stop his minions from braking into the Capitol. He was reportedly immobilized and delighted by the spectacle of the rioters with flags bearing his name. Eventually it fell to Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi to summon more protection against the mob.

Consider one more case. Seemingly unaware of how far afield he drifted from the job he sought, North Carolina Representative Madison Cawthorn (R) was quoted recently in Time Magazine noting he has built his office staff just for communications “rather than legislation.”  That’s a departure from most congressional offices that have people to research issues and help craft bills that members will promote.  But Mr. Cawthorn is apparently using the public’s money to run his own self-marketing agency. Refusing the work of legislating is like going into business to create swimsuits that can’t get wet, or making wedding cakes from plaster. Such an emphasis on appearances strays so far from what someone elected to a deliberative body should want.

Perhaps this is how American leadership will wither and die: at the hands of people more interested in media appearances than in helping constituents desperate for governmental action.

No! Not the Red Tab!

As I have had to remind people so many times, we can’t be expected to do everything well.

Our family had a house cat with a terrible temper that made her a creature more to be endured than loved. We did our best, but problems always developed, and never more so than when she had to go to the vet. Our doctor was a man of few words, but it didn’t take long to realize that Ellie was already on his radar as a “behavior problem.” He apparently asked his assistant to put a red plastic tab on the top of her file as a warning flag.  This decision probably came after the time she leapt out of his arms and back into the waiting room, climbing picture frames and an ornamental tree all the way to the ceiling. There were loud protests from Ellie and general commotion in the room. The ruckus was something the subdued dogs waiting their turn surely took as just a typical feline stunt.

Over the years other disruptions followed. And we sheepishly looked on while the veterinary staff perfected their “all hands on deck” drill. The vet never actually told us that our family member was considered an outlaw. I think it was an assistant who mentioned that the red tab on Ellie’s manila file folder was a warning that this four-legged was prepared to do anything to be anywhere else.

This got me wondering about how many versions of the red tab I have accumulated since my ragged days in a third grade: a year that seemed to test the patience of everyone. Over the years how many of the equivalents of a scarlet letter of warning were placed in various filing cabinets from California to New Jersey? In my defense I would just note that sometimes you learn a lot by not doing things very well.

I’m pretty sure I attained at least one red tab from my father, who placed me in charge of payroll for the men who worked in the steel fabrication plant he managed. This was a payroll with a twist: an incentive-based pay scale increasing a worker’s salary for pieces produced over the minimum. I thought I had figured it out. But I botched it so badly that the company had to send one of its specialists from halfway across the country to stave off a shop floor insurrection. We all agreed that math just was not my thing, so for my next summer of employment I was banished to the hot galvanizing line of an adjacent plant.

This was a job that no one wanted, so the only red marks that came were on my flesh. You knew you fell short of the skills needed for galvanizing metal if you were maimed, scalded or dead.


High school percussionists selected for their skills are supposed to play their instruments well, not pull them into a heap in an unplanned and abrupt departure from the stage.

Years earlier in high school I had been better at grilling hamburgers for tourists. But it turns out that I had no talent for changing the expensive CO2 cylinders used in a small restaurant’s soda machines. These could last a whole summer season. But with one small washer misplaced by my distracted self—the only male employee—it ran out of gas within hours. That was surely worth a red tab somewhere. And probably another one as well for falling off of a stage mid-performance. It happened in the midst of a concert held yearly of the Colorado All State Band. High school percussionists selected for their skills are supposed to play their instruments well, not pull them into a heap in an unplanned and abrupt departure from the stage. More red faces, and a serious reason to edit the record being made for the other proud parents who showed up.

As I have had to say perhaps too many times, we can’t be expected to do everything well. It applies to cats and humans. But it is still hard to live down the stigma of a red tab slapped on a file baring your name. I have certainly survived and fully earned my red marks. But we tend to forget the real damage that can be done when the tools are more subtle and linguistic.  Words we use in the pretext of passing on information about another can do more than signal a problem, they can stigmatize the named person as well.  As noted in another post, terms for psychological problems (crazy, obsessive, paranoid, etc.) often get passed around as their own forms of wounding labels.


Impeachment Postscript: An early Warning about Donald Trump’s words from 2018:  The Nightmare of Presidential Incitement