Mario Cuomo’s Dictum – ‘Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose’ President Adama Barrow Should Reach For Words That will Outlive Him

Mario Cuomo’s Dictum – ‘Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose’
President Adama Barrow Should Reach For Words That will Outlive Him.
If Barrow Knew Poetry, The Gambia Would Be a Better Place If Re-elected.
by Alagi Yorro Jallow.
Fatoumatta: The poetry of campaigning is lofty, gauzy, full of possibilities with a finish line. Specific goal problems are solved just because you want them to be in this world, and opposition melts away before discovering hidden failures. Nevertheless, conversely, the prose of governing authority is messy and maddening, full of compromise and half victories that leave a sour taste in one’s mouth and politics; the poetry of campaigning is vague, whereas the prose of governing authority is specific.
Mario Matthew Cuomo, former three-time governor of the American state of New York, was known for his poetic use of language in the political space. For instance, speaking on his supposed presidential plans in 1986, he quipped: “I have no plans, and no plans to plan.” He eventually did not run — despite being top tip for the Democratic ticket in 1988 and 1992. What about this? “I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in 50 years what my father taught by example in one week.” Cuomo, whose son Andrew Cuomo disgraced New York governor who resigned over a barrage of sexual harassment allegations, died at 82 in 2015.
Still, we will never forget his thought-stimulating, witty gift to the world.
The Mario Cuomo quote that comes to mind today as we head to December 4, 2021, presidential election blues is: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Political campaigns are flavored with musical catchphrases, but delivering the goods is not a tea party. It is not as if poetry is accessible. No. I addressed myself as a “budding poet” inspired by Robert Fraser’s ‘West African Poetry- A Critical History’ in the 1980s. However, after piling up the wreckage of unfinished lines and wretched verses, I decided to respect myself. Prose, though, is a much longer journey. It is full of narratives and plots, even poems, twists and turns that have to come together at some point.
Fatoumatta: As Mario Cuomo famously noted, politicians campaign in poetry, but they govern in prose. Thus, many of the skills needed to win the presidency appear transferable to the world of governance. However, many of the challenges a sitting president faces prove very different from those encountered on the campaign trail. The differences, and similarities, between campaigning and governing in today’s political environment, as well as the differences inherent in running for President as a challenger versus as an incumbent, will need the communications tools used in modern politics and how to adapt to meet the needs of campaigning and governing.
Unlike a president’s first election, a reelection campaign requires the ability to defend a record that touches all aspects of the executive branch’s power. Policies are judged not only on their wisdom but also on the executive branch’s ability to implement them efficiently and effectively. President owns the impact of all decisions and the individuals’ successes (and failures) across the government he leads. Challengers facing the incumbent President must also run a different race, targeting their record while articulating their vision.
One similarity between an election campaign and governing authority is the unending scrutiny of an active, and always present, press corps. Reporters who cover the politics of campaigning and the politics of governing face challenges all their own, living and breathing the same issues as the subjects they cover, but with different goals and different pressures. Week four will provide a reporter’s perspective on the differences and similarities between covering a campaign and an administration.
On the soapbox, you can easily promise, poetically: “One meal per day for every kid and a laptop for every school children and we’ll do what Yahya Jammeh never did.” The crowd will scream and roar — as if you are a rap star. On the hot seat, though, when reality batters you silly, you resort to prose: “Yahya Jammeh, in a sickening stretch of misrule, had pulled down the barn and ferried away the meal, making it impossible for us to feed the kids. Now we have to till the land, plant the seed, irrigate the farm, harvest the crop and process the produce before we can feed the kids and straighten their wizened faces.” Politicians are over-marketed themselves and have become a victim of their exaggerated competence.
Fatoumatta: With electioneering poetry long done and dusted, prose has set in. All the signs that the politicians could fail are there: team co-ordination is in shambles; economic strategy is unacknowledged recycling of what the previous administration did or tried to do; and the political front — by which I refer to national cohesion, the rule of law and credible elections — is in a downward spiral. Things have to change. President Adama Barrow cannot afford to fail. His name will be ruined forever. However, it is not too late for president Barrow to retrace his steps and refocus. As an admirer of Adama Barrow, therefore, I have chosen to offer him advice on how he should proceed in his mission to repair the Gambia.
Get a sense of urgency. President Barrow seems to think he has ten years to do this job. Instead, he spent all the time in a shadow battle with his estranged Godfather and building a war chest for reelection, ended up wasting time damaging our democracy and ruining the economy.
Fatoumatta: Great leaders do not border tenure longevity before making an enduring impact—Nelson Mandela rule for one term. Abraham Lincoln did not finish the second term. However, they did their best for their people. A study has shown that 90% of our political office holders do not perform anything in their second term. So this weak argument that has been in our political sphere since the first republic must stop: “President is a good man but he has bad advisers and people around him who are doing the wrong things” The aides and ministers are the extensions of the President, so if they are corrupt or destructive. First, the President fails to sack them, and then the President is bad because they are his employees.
Re-jig the cabinet. The first cabinet was usually a repayment of political IOUs. That done, it is now time for Adama Barrow to say “thank you and goodbye — it was nice knowing you” to the liabilities and noisemakers in his team. Now is the time to change gear if elected in December. Time is far spent. It would be best if you worked while it is yet day. It is clear that some people in his team are not helping his cause or maybe too constrained to offer any value. Adama Barrow is going nowhere if he does not have a competent team around him. Not just a competitive team but a team that can deliver the prose with precision. Some are still talking poetry as if the 2021 presidential election is yet to hold. Overhaul.
Fatoumatta: To govern in prose, president Barrow and winning on December 4. He must design an economic recovery blueprint. I have listened patiently to senior officials of his administration on the economic and financial crisis. All I can hear is “in the long run.” There is no discernible plan on how Gambians will survive the short run. As John Maynard Keynes would say, “In the long run we are all dead.” The economy is the biggest issue now, and there is no sign yet that the government has a grip on it. We are all affected by the economic crisis, but the worst hit is President Barrow’s primary constituency: the poor. In the next 12 months, how will the jobs come back? How will inflation be contained? We needed an emergency plan as far back as 2021, but here we are. Limbo.
To govern in prose, president Barrow, again if elected, must develop a winning anti-graft strategy. Corruption and Impunity have escalated, I would say, and we now know there is something called “budget padding” that went undetected for years. This is good news. However, we are also getting mixed messages on “invasive plant species” and grass-cutting buccaneers. More so, while naming and shaming may excite the lynch mob, an anti-graft war built solely on this approach will not work. A winning strategy must go beyond public lynching — it must address systemic failures, administrative lapses, entrenched mindsets, and other endemic pathologies. Buhari must deal with more than the symptoms. Comprehensive.
Governing in prose, president Barrow must also broaden security. That banditry industry and armed robbery no longer hold a chunk of the country is great news. I do not envy Adama Barrow. He inherited a myriad of insecurity and corruption problems for decades without media coverage. Ethno-religious and tribalism were a national staple. Nevertheless, Barrow must step up his watch. He must first stop the infighting in his security team. Alarming.
Fatoumatta: To govern in prose, president Barrow must show some flexibility, please. When a policy is killing the economy, you must review it. You centralized all revenue collection and moved all funds into one account at Central Bank “to fight corruption” and start borrowing to pay salaries and do projects. What is that? With ICT, you can track public funds wherever they may be in banks. Fact. You cannot be running forward and looking backward. It would appear the core strategy of this government is to keep blaming former President Yahya Jammeh from 2017 till 2021. There is certainly nothing wrong with reminding us that the Gambia would have been better off if Yahya Jammeh had done the right thing in the time of plenty, but, come on, Yahya Jammeh left power since January 19, 2017! He lost an election because most voters thought he was not doing a good job, and they do not need to be reminded about that every day of their lives. Focus.
For decades our politicians successfully campaigned in poetry because the passage of time blunted the tragedy in the Gambia and because the political class’s ineptitude has been overwhelming. Now, the unrelieved catastrophe of politicians has been in years inspiring us to look at their past, compare it with their present and make predictions about their future. However, unfortunately, it is now apparent that our leaders are congenitally and helplessly incompetent.
The first screenshot presents robust evidence that our leader’s frivolous blame games to explain away their incompetence and misrule to blame for their incompetent husbandry of the economy. Hence, they blamed “middlemen”–after blaming followers A lazy workman, the English say, blames his tools.
Fatoumatta: The second screenshot is a classic crippling agony Yahya Jammeh inflicted on Gambian, like when President. Bottom line: Yahya Jammeh is irremediably a kleptomaniac leader. He cannot help it. So he inflicted even more hardship on Gambians and blamed others for it in perpetuity.
Fatoumatta: To govern in prose change style. However, I expected more action from President Barrow. It is very frustrating. He is too distant from the public and governance. He needs to engage more. He needs to communicate more and better. He needs to put his party, NPP, in order. The party exists only on paper. More importantly, he needs to foster political stability, peace, and progress. He needs to consciously re-build the Gambia. Every part of the Gambia must have a sense of belonging. No part should feel ostracised. Finally, he must respect the rule of law. This government is full of lawyers but hardly obeys court orders. I am afraid that is not right. To govern in prose, President Barrow, you must Change.

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