Monday, August 18, 2008

T. Boone Pickens-- A Swift Boater Turned Pluralist

Smart successful people tend to have strong opinions and the courage and confidence to act on them. But they can differ on how the deal with those who disagree with them or have other opinions.

One approach--the one we see from most politicians today--is to discredit and even demonize those who have other points of view. We've all seen how unproductive that is. A second is to be tolerant of the holders of inferior positions or to pretend to respect them in an effort to promote diversity. This can keep people happier but does little to promote excellence.

The winning position in every aspect of daily life is to be pluralistic. Pluralism means being fiercely committed to your own beliefs and practices while trying to find the partial truth in the approaches of those who with whom you disagree. In business and education they call it using "best practices" and in sports they call it "cross training." Look for wisdom everywhere and when you find it, use it to upgrade your own ability to perform.

A few days ago I got to listen and talk to T. Boone Pickens, an 80-year old multi-billionaire oilman who over the last four years has transitioned from being a man who tried to discredit and demonize the other to a true pluralist. He is the best example I have seen of what a profound difference pluralism can make in our effort to confront the most important challenges in life.

In 2004, Pickens donated almost $4 million to the Bush campaign--a huge chunk of which went to fund the sleazy ads produced by the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth which viciously criticized the military record of decorated Viet Nam veteran John Kerry. George Bush, like myself, enlisted in Air Force Reserve to avoid the Vietnam war. Bush was trained as a pilot at a cost of $500,000 to U.S. taxpayers and then never showed up for a Reserve meeting for four years. Against all logic, the ads were a huge success and Bush won the election.

Last Friday, Pickens appeared at the Aspen Institute as a totally changed man on a mission. Although he never mentioned his Swift Boat role, he did say that our country's biggest problem is "a failure in leadership" and rolled his eyes whenever Bush's name was mentioned.

Pickens was here to talk about the Pickens Plan ( for making our country energy independent. His plan is explained in detail at his website but in a nutshell, he believes our top national priority should be to stop the $700 billion a year wealth transfer between the U.S. and oil producing countries--including many that are funding terrorism and have pledged to destroy us.

He is in favor of aggressively pursuing any form of energy that can be produced in our country with an emphasis on natural gas--for heating, industry, and to fuel cars--and wind. He also favors expanding drilling although, unlike McCain, he does not believe that we can "drill our way out of this problem."

He pointed out that the U.S., with 3% of the world's oil production and 4% of the world's people, consumes 25% of the world's oil. "We got addicted to cheap oil and now that the price is going up we're stuck" he said, pointing out that no other country in the world allowed its oil prices to remain as low as we did. "It's your fault and my fault," he said. "And a failure of leadership."

When I talked with Pickens after his presentation, he said he has met with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Friedman called for a big hike in gasoline taxes the week after the attacks on 9/11 to cut demand for oil and keep us from supporting the people who attacked us. "I'm in favor of that right now," Pickens told me. "I'm looking for good advice wherever I can find it."

Pickens was enthusiastic and animated as he talked about his plan. He also said that he would not endorse John McCain or Barack Obama and would "sit out" this year's campaign because he felt that dealing in a non-partisan way with this problem was more important that his partisan political feelings. He asked for and received private meetings with both McCain and Obama over the weekend and he said he will look forward to working with our next president--whomever that might be.

Someone asked him if his enormous wealth didn't give him access to decision makers that the average person doesn't have. "My money gets me access, but it doesn't get me results, Pickens said. "I would rather show up with a million people signed up than show up rich."

Hearing about the Pickens Plan was fascinating, but I came away from the session blown away by the transformation in Pickens himself. In just a few years he moved from being a totally partisan political animal to a man who is looking for the partial truth in the disparate views of a variety of people. And, he's backing his position with $60 million of his own money.

From Swift Boater to pluralist in just a few years. From funding lies and smear tactics to working with millions of people to solve one of our nation's most pressing problems. In my mind, Pickens is the new poster boy for pluralism.

The Jewish Talmud says:

Who is truly wise? He who learns from all people.

T. Boone Pickens has become truly wise.

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