Transitions & turning points

By December 9, 2008Article, Atlantic Eye

ISTANBUL, Turkey, Dec. 9 (UPI) — Public policy is about taking risks. It is also about taking a stand. Some remarkable people stood out for me in 2008.
I did my first fundraiser — and frankly, I am not a natural at it — at the end of October 2004, a week before Election Day, for the Democratic National Committee with Gen. Wesley Clark in Geneva. The party feared another Florida and was raising money for another bruising legal battle. John Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president; polls showed it too close to call with Bush. Gov. Howard Dean’s candidacy was but a memory.

Dean would return in 2005 as the chairman of the Democratic Party. He was not the favorite to win. As with many things, Dean was underestimated. It was the governor who proved that the Internet was a superb fundraising tool. He pulled in $40 million in a month in 2004, a record at the time, and mostly from small donors. It was the model that would be perfected by Sen. Barack Obama.

Howard Dean also understood early that one must take the fight to every state — even those that seemed hopeless. Those included Colorado, New Mexico and Ohio — all of which Obama won. At the time, Dean’s “50 State Strategy” was derided as naive.

But Howard was not naive — he was right. His early moves, his tenacity, understanding the need to revamp and build up the infrastructure of the party, and his leadership set the foundation for the Democratic victory in November. Howard has decided to leave his post as party chair; if he wants, there is a place waiting for him on Global Panel’s Advisory Board.

With him on the battlefield was Andy Tobias. Andy is the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. He is a behind-the-scenes man, a successful entrepreneur and columnist. I hope Andy does not give up his post — which he has held since 1999. Andy moved fundraising to new heights at the DNC. He is a silent champion of Democratic causes — a young 60ish, he is tenacious and honest. Others who stood out at the DNC were Carl Chidlow, Andrew Wright and Brooks Banton — who would move to the Obama campaign and become deputy outreach director.

When I met New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark at a reception in the venerable Marriott am Potsdamer Platz in April 2005, she was facing tough polls; she would call elections in July. New Zealand’s Ambassador to Germany Peter Hamilton had given me the opportunity for a sidebar. “I understand you supported Al Gore in 2000,” she said to me in her trademark raspy voice. “I did, ma’am,” I said. “I wish he had won,” the prime minister said. “You didn’t hear me say that, did you?” she asked with a wink. I laughed. She was marvelous. We spoke for another five minutes before she moved on to other guests. She made a point to walk over one more time before leaving the hall. “Don’t give up, professor,” she said to me. “You Democrats will win the next time around.” She was right about other things as well.

Helen Clark lost a tough bid for re-election just days after Barack Obama became president-elect. She had served a record four terms and 10 years as prime minister. Her successor as party leader and leader of the opposition is former foreign minister and later Defense Minister Phil Goff — a friend and member of Global Panel’s Advisory Board.

Also retiring this year was Donald C. McKinnon. Don comes from the right of the political spectrum in New Zealand and had been the National Party’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister for nearly 10 years. He moved on to become secretary-general of the Commonwealth, a position he held for eight years in London. Don has accepted the role of chairman of Global Panel Australasia. His former chief of staff, the able Amitav Banerji, has just been selected as director of political affairs under the new Commonwealth secretary-general — you will not regret decision.

I respect John McCain. His campaign was not worthy of the man. As many men with a military background, I value his honesty and integrity. I had met him over the years at the Munich Security Conference. Except for his lack of judgment with the Keating Five — which nearly cost him his career — he has been a remarkable public servant. I am told he was considered as secretary of veterans affairs. He would have been great, though the selection of Gen. Eric Shinseki — who got it right on Iraq and paid the price — is a superb choice as well.

Tomas Chrenek is a quiet hero of two not-for-profit institutions I chair. He is, as with most things, a marvelous supporter who expects little fanfare. Chrenek is the supervisory board chairman of the Moravia Steel Group, one of the Czech Republic’s leading corporate conglomerates. Tom is also a leader in healthcare, energy and the services industry. Tom Chrenek is one of the few people trained in the dark days of communism who I respect and interact with. He was 26 at the fall. He is one of the Czech Republic’s wealthiest men — one of the few new industrialists for whom I have time.

As the year comes to an end, and my new friend George Clooney travels to dangerous places to help the poor and downtrodden again — thank you, Charles Adams and Daniel Dozier, for introducing us — I am reminded that President-elect Obama still has a few places in his Cabinet.

Gen. Wesley Clark would make a superb secretary of energy or deputy secretary of state.

Over and out for now.

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He has advised political candidates and participated in the underground fight against communism.)