The Ghost of Leadership

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I’ve lived right around the corner from the United States Mission to the United Nations since I moved to New York in October of 2001. In those early days after 9/11, the city was awash in Xeroxed fliers pleading, “Have You Seen My Daddy?” alongside yellow caution tape. We were looking for answers. We were looking for strength and someone to convince us it was all going to be okay.

At the time, the US Mission to the UN showcased photos of President George W. Bush and his cabinet on the wall, facing the United Nations. George with his goofy frat boy grin, Dick Cheney with his evil operator sneer, no-nonsense Colin Powell.

I wasn’t a fan of “W”, didn’t vote for him either time. But there he was, professionally posed, hanging on the wall. Photographic proof that we had government in place, and they were accountable as we worked to put our country back together.

When Barack Obama was elected, I was elated. So was my neighborhood. On election night 2008, people literally threw open their windows and shouted, “WOOOOOOOO!!!!!! OBAAAAMMAAAA! “ It was the opposite of Network’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” It was “I’m so damn happy that this man is in charge.”

Within a few days, George W. Bush and company were replaced by Obama’s calm, “Don’t worry–I got this” face. Next to him was Joe Biden looking the same as he probably did in his 1st grade class photo: “Hi guys!” Then came Hillary Clinton, in all her pantsuited professionalism.

Now, the US Mission to the UN on First Ave is the street I take to get to the grocery store, the gym, and the little café in Dag Hammarskjold Park. It’s part of my daily routine, the backdrop of mundane activities.

So on election night 2016, I thought about that wall of photos. Yes, I was part of a liberal New Yorker cliché, at an Upper West Side election night party, surrounded by people expecting a celebration who went home drunk, depressed and bewildered when Donald Trump won.

And I’ll tell you, I dreaded the new photos. On Inauguration Day, I looked outside my window at the American flags and they suddenly looked funereal. Flags that once brightened the grey winter sky made me sad now. Within a week after Jan 20th, one of them actually ripped. It felt like an omen.

I kept waiting for the Trump administration photos to go up. The Obama Administration photos had been removed immediately, but the walls remained empty. I waited for the photos so I could grimace at them, flex my middle finger, shake my head and look away.

And I waited.

And I waited.

And I waited.

At first I thought, “This is great! I don’t have to look at Orange Foolius.”

But on the 89th day of the Trump era, the walls still remained empty, and my curiosity got the best of me. I asked one of the security guards if this was unusual. I said I’d lived in the neighborhood for years, and I’d never seen the walls empty for so long. He looked up at the walls, back at me and shrugged.

“Well, I guess they’re taking their time,” he said.

“No complaints here!” I said.

But that’s a lie. The truth is, I want those faces. I want to know that someone is in charge. Even if it is someone I fundamentally disagree with. There is something disturbing about that blank space, reflecting a lack of leadership, a lack of concern for basic protocol. Of course this isn’t just about the photos. It’s another symbol of the fact that we are adrift now. It’s not just bad leadership. It’s no leadership.

As you can see, I tried to take a photo of what this wall looks like. But this is one situation where a photo is not worth a thousand words. People who have not lived in this neighborhood have no idea there used to be something on those walls. Reassuring photos of a working government. The walls remain empty as I post this. Now the only evidence of what used to be is a series of hooks on the wall, anchoring nothing.

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