As the November elections stressed anew, America has become vastly suspicious of leaders. Yet it continues to produce them: TIME has picked 50 with the requisite ambition, vision and community spirit

One of the satisfactions of American democracy is that after each election, we can imagine a little map on which dozens of tiny dotted lines converge northeast of Virginia, as dozens of Mr. Smiths from all over make their way to Washington. It is gratifying to think of those Smiths; they represent civic responsibility successfully discharged. For one alarming, if heady, moment, the weight of a nation rests directly on our shoulders; then suddenly it is on theirs, and we are proud and relieved to announce our latest set of leaders.

Not this last time, however. Or perhaps only in the...

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