Touchdown LA! A short layover en route to the historical citadel of American libertarianism, San Francisco, to attend the annual West Coast Australian American Leadership Dialogue. What to do with a spare day in the City of Angels but visit a Presidential Library? With only hours, not days, the obvious choice is to head to Yorba Linda, birthplace of the 37th President (next time Mr Reagan, I promise)!
An over-rated piece of advice is to never meet your heroes. No chance of that on this day, but the next best thing. I fluked a visit on the library’s commemoration of the centenary of President Nixon’s birth; his daughter Tricia was in attendance, as were several surviving (just) cabinet members. It was a grand event in a West Coast Country Club kind of way: too much bunting and very colourful. As those gathered looked upwards in awe at the military flypast, I scanned the aged Californian matrons of the Republican establishment. Sadly, their faces and plastic surgery have paralleled the decline of this once great state, since Ronnie and Nancy made all things Golden from Sacramento 40 years ago.
Alan Greenspan contends that America’s 20th century triumphs had their genesis in the ingenuity of 1960s California. Now the place is on a classical trajectory to ruin. There is one-party majority control of the state legislature, and the Washington congressional delegation, a 1970s California Dreamin’ retread, is doing an encore performance in the governor’s mansion in the form of Jerry Brown. Who would have thought the Democratic party would end up a bigger threat than the San Andreas?
The Australian American Leadership Dialogue is a high-level private diplomatic forum that has involved Prime Ministers, Presidents and a coterie of citizen leaders from both countries for the past 20 years. It owes its existence to a Sydney Harbour cruise hosted by Nick Greiner in honour of visiting President George Bush Snr. A representative of the enduring Sydney Institute hit the Pres up with the idea of an annual pow-wow for the two great nations. An idea was born, a Presidential commitment made and a logo designed; ever since, politicians from Canberra and Washington have been blocking out their diaries for these gatherings.
The Leadership Dialogue took place in the Swiss-like village of Palo Alto, smack in the middle of Silicon Valley and home to the powerhouse of American universities: Stanford. Its alumni and faculty can lay claim to the achievements of Google, Yahoo and basically the computer revolution of the past half century and has an endowment fund to match (US$17 billion as at August 2012)!
Entrepreneurialism is in the college’s DNA and is writ large across its curricula. If Kennedy was alive and looking for this generation’s best and brightest he would bypass his home state offerings of Harvard and MIT and head west to this place.
America owes a debt to Tom Wolfe, whose landmark 1983 article in Esquire magazine ‘The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce’ informed a wider audience about what he had discovered taking place in northern California, ‘a great technological revolution’ no less. The invention of the silicon chip, observed Wolfe, would strikingly alter the national economy, communications and our lives forever. The Valley no longer manufactures silicon, but Wolfe’s observations and reports were prescient and still hold true, though he would struggle to find his ingénue Charlotte Simmons among the Stanford freshmen class.
The Dialogue was opened by academic rock star Professor Francis Fukuyama, whose popular career was launched on the back of an article commissioned by the doyen of Australian foreign policy, Owen Harries. ‘The End of History’, you might have heard of it? Fukuyama surveyed the end of the Cold War and suggested mankind had reached the end point of its cultural and political evolution as a species. We had lumped for liberal democracy! Thank you linesman, thank you ball boys.
The academic world loves epochal declarations almost as much as politicians do, so many are eager to claim ownership of an emerging zeitgeist and ally their own interpretation to the in-vogue theory. Too often, this haste has come at a price.
Frank’s thesis proved inadequate if not wrong, failing to fully account for the fragility of democracy’s foundations or anticipate the rise of Islamofascism. But hey, the music doesn’t stop once you have a No. 1 hit, and perhaps it shouldn’t. Fukuyama remains a giant in security circles despite his Tom Friedman-like crabwalk away from his conservative origins. San Francisco can do that to a guy.
The trip is bookended by the opportunity to attend the annual G’Day USA ball in LA, seeking to do what Oprah’s visit couldn’t — bring Americans to Australia. The ball has certainly had its moments, after all. It’s where post-Tom Nicole met pre-famous Keith. But being happily married and getting confirmation of John Travolta’s likely attendance made the allure of home too hard to resist. Till next time La-La land.
Dallas McInerney is a policy and regulation expert working in the Australian banking industry.