The captain stays with the ship and leads from the bridge

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The nautical metaphors were flying fast and furious Sunday night during Steve Kroft’s interview with President Obama on “60 Minutes.”

I quote here from a transcript of the president’s remarks:

“Sometimes when I’m talking to my team, I describe us as, you know, I’m the captain and they’re the crew on a ship going through really bad storms. And no matter how well we’re steering the ship, if the boat’s rocking back and forth and people are getting sick and, you know, they’re being buffeted by the winds and the rain and, you know, at a certain point if you’re asking, ‘Are you enjoying the ride right now?’ Folks are going to say, ‘No.’ And are they going to say, ‘Do you think the captain’s doing a good job?’ People are going to say, ‘You know what? A good captain would have had us in some smooth waters and sunny skies at this point.’ And I don’t control the weather. What I can control are the policies we’re putting in place to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Despite where you come down on his policies and politics, President Obama did OK with the nautical theme, but then he’s always been master and commander of the rhetoric deck. And the image of a cabin load of queasy passengers is pretty apt, given the gyrations we’ve been on since the fall of 2008, when the weather went south and pretty much stayed there.

Ships in storms need strong, experienced captains and crews, and tough economic times demand strong, competent leaders, from the president right on down to the most junior member of Congress. You can’t cut and run from your responsibilities at sea without running the risk of losing the vessel.

For an example of a doomed ship without captain or crew, click on the video of the stricken Greek cruise liner Oceanos below, which sank in 1991 off South Africa.

The notion that women and children are evacuated first and the captain is the last to leave his ship — unofficial law of the sea — was apparently lost on this skipper and crew, who couldn’t hit the lifeboats fast enough. Left behind were hundreds of passengers, many of whom were assisted by ship’s entertainers. When the going got tough, the guitar player on the ship stepped up. No kidding. Watch the video.

Let’s hope the images of the foundering Greek liner aren’t suggestive of where the Greek economy — worse yet, Europe — is headed. Europe still has some tricky waters to navigate.

In Washington these days, the decks seem to be perpetually awash, with the pumps running day and night to keep the government functioning. Leadership in the White House and on both sides of the aisle in Congress needs to do better.

I like the sentiment captured in the aphorism, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” We are sometimes quick to forget that we’re all in this together, that every American should share in the benefit of our greater economic trajectory. We’re still waiting on the flood tide. And we’re still waiting for a captain and crew who can work together, pull the right strings, to move this enormous, complicated, fully rigged ship of ours forward. What a sight that would be for sailors’ eyes.


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