Thomas Sowell: Don't settle for warm body because there is no Superman

Thomas Sowell

Published: Thursday, Sept. 29 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

One of the problems in trying to select a leader for any large organization or institution is the tendency to start out looking for Superman, passing up many good people who fail to meet that standard, and eventually ending up settling for a warm body.

The current outbreak of "gotcha" attacks on Texas Gov. Rick Perry show one of the other pitfalls for those who are trying to pick a national leader. The three big sound-bite issues used against him during the "debates" have involved Social Security, immigration and a vaccine against cervical cancer.

Where these three issues have been discussed at length, whether in a few media accounts or in Perry's own more extended discussions in an interview on Sean Hannity's program, his position was far more reasonable than it appeared to be in either his opponents' sound bites or even in his own abbreviated accounts during the limited time available in the TV "debate" format.

On Social Security, Perry was not only right to call it a "Ponzi scheme," but was also right to point out that this did not mean welshing on the government's obligation to continue paying retirees what they had been promised.

Even those of us who still disagree with particular decisions made by Perry can see some of those decisions as simply the errors of a decent man who realized that he was faced with not a theory but a situation.

For example, the ability to save young people from cervical cancer with a stroke of a pen was a temptation that any decent and humane individual would find hard to resist, even if Perry himself now admits to second thoughts about it.

Many of us can agree with Congresswoman Michele Bachmann's contention that it should have been done differently. But it reflects no credit on her to have tried to scare people with claims about the dangers of vaccination. Such scares have already cost the lives of children who have died on both sides of the Atlantic from diseases that vaccination would have prevented.

The biggest mischaracterization of Perry's position has been on immigration. The fact that he has more confidence in putting "boots on the ground" along the border, instead of relying on a fence that can be climbed over or tunneled under where there is no one around, is a logistical judgment, not a question of being against border control.

Texas Rangers have already been put along the border to guard it where the federal government has failed. Former Sen. Rick Santorum's sound-bite attempts to paint Perry as soft on border control have apparently been politically successful, judging by polls. But his repeated interrupting of Perry's presentation of his case during the recent debate is a cheap political trick that contributes nothing to public understanding and much to public misunderstanding.

Those of us who disagree with Perry's decision to allow the children of illegal immigrants to attend the state colleges and universities, under the same terms as Texas citizens, need at least to understand what his options were. These children, who had graduated from a Texas high school, were here only because of their parents' decisions and.

Perry saw the issue as whether these children should now be allowed to continue their education, and become self-supporting taxpayers, or whether Texas would be better off with a higher risk of those young people becoming dependents or worse. I still see Perry's decision as an error, but the kind of error that a decent and humane individual would be tempted to make.

Error-free leaders don't exist — and we don't want to end up settling for a warm body.

Ultimately, this is not about Perry. It is about a process that can destroy any potential leader, even when the country needs a leader with a character that the "gotcha" attackers demonstrate they do not have.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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