A political analyst with ABC news, the co-author of 2006’s Applebee’s America, and the former chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign, Matthew Dowd has spent the last seven years ruminating on the current state of the country. Through his columns and TV appearances he sharpened his observations about leadership and what is lacking in that leadership, but it took a very public break with the president, a series of personal tragedies, and a pilgrimage around the world to see how those thoughts applied to much more than politics and how they could come together as his latest book, A New Way: Embracing the Paradox as We Lead and Serve.
“When the ground shakes in one’s life, it affects the foundations of many things,” says Dowd, referencing the loss of both his son and daughter. Those tragedies occurred in 2007, shortly after he announced in a wide-ranging interview with the New York Times that after serving as President George W. Bush’s aide (and helping him get elected to the presidency in the first place), Dowd felt “disappointed” by Bush’s decisions in his second term about the Iraq War and what Dowd deemed Bush’s refusal to listen to the will of the American people. The deaths of his children sent shock waves not only into the foundations of his personal and professional lives, but also affected his Catholic faith. Dowd decided to investigate his unease by venturing alone into areas of the world related to all major religions, starting in Nepal and working his way to Istanbul.
Questioning everything he saw and believed throughout this pilgrimage helped Dowd to look at the world from an entirely new perspective. “It caused me to look at everything as a paradox. Look at everything to ask, what’s the truth in this past all the specific elements? What’s the fundamental truth in this, and where does the humanity lie?” In committing these observations to paper, Dowd realized that paradox and nuance were key to appreciating many complex issues in contemporary life, including politics and the questions of leadership on which he had worked professionally for so many years.
“What I’ve learned is that the sweet spot of life and the truth is in a paradox for so many things, like love and fear, following your heart or following your head,” Dowd says. “All of these different things are important to political leadership, but actually they’re even more important for your own personal life journey.” Elaborating on that idea, Dowd wrote about the pitfalls of partisanship currently wreaking havoc on America’s political systems but also examined people closest to him. In dedicating a chapter to his former boss, Texas governor Bob Bullock, he looked at the paradox of a gruff, back-stabbing politician who still cared deeply for people, including Dowd’s own sister.
Dowd wants A New Way to show people what he now sees: the political and personal dilemmas that seem like paradoxes are really false choices. For example, we might feel compelled to fit neatly into the box of “Republican” or “Democrat,” but those categories are too neat and narrow to contain most Americans. In his view, one of the most buzzed-about political conversations in America right now—staking your efforts on big, national political change versus focusing on local action—is actually a false choice. “I’m asking folks to actually pause long enough to consider that they can create the change in the circles of their lives that will ultimately build to bigger, broader national and global change,” Dowd says, “not to wait on the president they want, but understand that they can actually lead.”
Dowd’s analysis of this disconnect between a large majority of the public and the executive branch feels so relevant that it seems he must have completed the chapter only a few hours after breaking any recent day’s headlines himself on ABC—a feature he attributes to self-publishing A New Way,making it easier and faster to get the work out to the public. “The great thing about this book is that I had written all of these notes before November, and then I took 60 days, wrote it, and put into a book,” says Dowd, commenting on the hope that his story and ideas will be more both relevant and inspirational in today’s world. “After the inauguration, people are looking for answers.”
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.