Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010 | 2 a.m.
I always knew Kenny Guinn was the real deal. It wasn’t until his funeral — isn’t that almost always the case — that I realized he was also a really big deal.
I am not talking about his incredible life story — the quintessential American dream kind of story that is uniquely inspirational and that has set us virtually apart from the rest of the world since our founding. As wonderful as his life was, there are, fortunately, thousands of such stories told every year across this great country.
How he lived his story is where Kenny Guinn differed substantially from almost everyone else around him. You see, Nevada lost that rarest of individuals last month when Kenny was taken far too early from us. What we lost was a leader.
Jon Ralston hit on this theme last week in the Las Vegas Sun when he challenged Brian Sandoval and Rory Reid to step up to the plate and act in the interests of Nevadans by telling us where they stand on the issues. By talking to us as if we could take the truth, without fear of polls, voter outrage or the far-too-frequent loss of common sense that attacks the voting public, they could take this opportunity — when Nevada needs it more than ever — to be leaders. Jon was looking for a gubernatorial candidate in Kenny’s image rather than the image fostered by slick ad campaigns, television commercials and strategies that have candidates saying as little as possible rather than as much as needed.
I was struck the same way Jon was as we listened to the eulogies for Kenny given by state Sen. Bill Raggio and longtime Guinn friend and campaign manager Pete Ernaut. Together they captured the essence of why Gov. Guinn was successful. He cared more about the people than he did about his job.
A number of quotes from Kenny’s speeches were reproduced in the brochure the mourners were given on the way into the service officiated by the Most Rev. Joseph A. Pepe, bishop of Las Vegas. Each one accurately describes how leaders should think, but when combined with the capacity for work and courage that comes with the knowledge that right is on your side — as was Kenny’s position on such matters — epitomizes what leadership is all about. The lack of such calls to action in today’s political environment speaks volumes for the quality of the players on the scene.
Or does it?
I have always believed that most people who offer themselves up for public office do so with the proper intent and desire — to help make the lives of the people in their community and state better. I still believe that, even though some people from time to time abuse the good nature of the citizenry and take for themselves that which was never given.
When the bad ones are caught or when some good ones lose their desire to work hard because of the frustrations of office, the value of public service and the esteem with which public servants are held diminish rapidly.
Add to this mess the growing partisan rancor that has defined our politics for the past 25 years, and no wonder the people continually want to “throw the bums out” and get new bums — even if the new ones are worse, which they often are. And so continues the downward spiral of dissatisfaction with government and those who govern.
I believe, therefore, that it takes two to tango on the dance floor of public service. It takes committed public servants willing to do what is right — no matter what the consequences — and it takes an understanding and intelligent electorate that accepts the fact that governing isn’t perfect nor is it pretty. And it is never satisfying all the time.
We cannot reasonably expect that every decision, every idea and every policy implemented, or even those attempted, will work. There will be failures. And therein lies the other side of the successful government equation.
We need people who will lead us toward better tomorrows while we encourage their efforts — those that succeed and those that inevitably fail. And if we are good citizens, we will know that we shouldn’t punish those who are elected to lead who try and fail. Rather, we should punish those we elect to lead who don’t!
One of the quotes I like from Kenny is, “To effect real change, we must embark on a road seldom traveled.” In Nevada, there are many roads we can travel that other states have taken and met with success. And, yet, we keep going down the same path expecting a different and better result. It is a path that is safe, requires no thought and is designed to maintain the status quo. And we have proved over and over again that it no longer works.
But rather than encourage our leadership to try new ideas, we punish them for even thinking there is a better way.
Another quote that is so self-evident only the uneducated could fail to grasp its meaning comes from a State of the State address: “Education isn’t just on my agenda — it is my agenda.”
That was the educator and the businessman in Kenny speaking. He knew our children are our future, and we owe it to them to give them the best education we can afford. The business side of that equation is that we can’t afford to shortchange them because they are the key to diversification, better jobs and better quality of life. And, yet, Nevada leads the nation in all the worst ways when it comes to educating our young people. Why?
It is clearly a failure of our leadership to show us the way to invest our dollars properly so that the investment bears dividends far in excess of the few dollars paid upfront. But it is also a failure of the people who do the electing.
When Gov. Guinn said, “It’s true that education costs money. But so does ignorance,” it is as if he knew that the economic meltdown was coming and Nevada’s insistence on being among the worst-funded states in the union would cost us plenty. Who among us can say otherwise today?
Finally, and here is where I would love to see leadership from our gubernatorial candidates and others who are running for office, Kenny said, “My plan for you tonight is not a series of programs but a road map for the future. Let this be a bold legacy, the rich inheritance of hope we leave for all the people of Nevada.”
If the people of this state are serious about the kind and quality of future they want for themselves and their families, now is the time to challenge those who seek our votes to show us their road map. They can tell us where they think we can grow, how we can get there and how much it will cost — because cost it will!
Our end of the bargain must be to follow Kenny’s admonition. “Now is the time for courage. It is up to us to face our challenges, and face them we will.”
We must show enough courage to be able to accept the truth. That is how we earn good leadership.
Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.