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Power Doesn’t Corrupt, It Just Forgets


So I’m watching Janet Yellen and Christine Lagarde discussing the state of the world economy at a Washington forum this week, and it hit me. These are two very powerful people. Now, I know what you’re saying – “Duh, Cavuto!! One’s the Federal Reserve Chair, and the other is managing director of the International Monetary Fund! They are very powerful people, you idiot!!”

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I know, I know (not on the idiot part). Of course they’re powerful. But you know when it really hit me? You know when it really registered they matter and their predecessors who were once just as widely quoted didn’t matter?

Everyone in that Washington conference room was frantically taking notes on every word these women were saying. News wires were buzzing, FOX Business alerts were flashing, and stock markets were shifting – each and all pegged to every nuance this powerful duo was sharing.

That, my friends, is power. And that, my friends, is the power of “being” in power. Former Federal Reserve chairs don’t get this kind of attention, and neither do former IMF big wigs. That’s the thing about power. You’re only powerful when you actually have the power – not so much when you don’t.

That doesn’t mean Ben Bernanke can’t command a pretty penny for a speech, and he does. Let’s just say the former Fed Boss ain’t exactly quoted like he was.

And you don’t have to be a go-to geek who’s gone on to pasture…to know the feeling. Former presidents feel it, too. They go from being the most powerful human being on earth to maybe a human interest story in The New York Times – if they’re lucky.

Bill Clinton famously lamented that once he was no longer president, golf partners stopped giving him mulligans. It hit home. He wasn’t in that house. Still important, just not omnipotent, and as the months and years go by, not all that widely quoted either. Perhaps that’s why he’s so interested in getting his wife back in that white-colored house. It doesn’t only bring back memories. Even as First Man, or whatever we’d call him in that event, it brings back power.

His successor, George W. Bush once joked that he immediately knew he was a private citizen again when he was stuck in traffic, “and no one much cared that I was.”

It was funny, but it made a serious point. You’re as powerful as you are quotable, and you don’t have to be a president or former president to discern the difference. Talk to any hot actor who suddenly goes cold at the box office – reality hits hard. Just ask Kevin Costner –from Field of Dreams to just way outside the park in what seems like half an inning.

They say fame is fleeting, but for many enjoying it in the moment, it can seem unending. To think it wasn’t that long ago South Korean musician Psy was an international sensation with his hugely popular hit “Gangnam Style,” and now you’d be hard-pressed to pick him out of an American Idol lineup.

Perhaps he’s fine with that, and with the quick wealth that came with his overnight success, soothed by that. But I bet you Psy sighs for the days everyone wanted to talk to him and every music awards show wanted to have him. Not so much now. Acts go cold. Hot stars suddenly become not so hot.

I remember a very powerful CEO who eventually decided to retire a tad earlier than many thought he would. When I caught up with him some years later, he sounded down, almost philosophical, remembering the “good old days.”

“You know, Neil,” he said. “Remember when you used to chase me down at those shareholder meetings when you were a reporter? No one’s chasing me down anymore. No one’s seeking out my opinion, or reaction. No one much bothers. No one much cares.”

He shrugged his shoulders, content with his wealthy corporate after-life, but missing the time it was his life. He wasn’t alone. Henry Kissinger once joked that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac; at least I “think” that’s how the former secretary of state put it. Once you don’t have the power, you don’t have quite as much allure to either sex!

I’m not so sure. Plenty of former big players still play well in their post-power world. It’s just not the same world, or the same power, or the same influence. Quoted, but not as much. Formidable, but not as much feared.

Just ask Alan Greenspan, who experienced it for himself when his successor Ben Bernanke became the most quoted money maestro on the planet. Until Janet Yellen was sitting in his desk and suddenly she became the most quoted money maestro on the planet. The day will come when Janet will no doubt feel the same jolt. Such is the constancy of power, it constantly changes. Maybe that’s why they call the utterances of those in power “flashes”  – because in a flash, they’re gone.

One day they are the news.

And the next day, they’re just reading the news.

What do you think?

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