Presidential Politics


James Bryce devoted a full chapter in his classic work, The American Commonwealth, to why great men rarely become President of the United States. First, he states, they tend not to gravitate to politics. Second, the method of choosing presidents does not bring men of superior skills and intellect to the forefront of public life; and, third, such men are not perceived as necessary during ordinary times. Since the publication of Bryce's book in 1897, the tendency toward mediocrity in presidential contests has increased, not diminished. Think of some of the men who have, in recent years, served as president. While these individuals do not represent the worst in American life, their stature is a far cry from that of a Washington or a Lincoln.

My favorite president during the last 60 years is none other than Harry Truman, memorably photographed below. Although he appears to have chosen a political career as a last resort and came to political prominence as a loyal team player in "Boss Tom" Pendergast's infamous machine, out of Kansas City, Missouri, Truman was gifted with intelligence, courage, and humanity. He was always a voracious reader and student of history and, while as president,  could and did astutely engage experts on arcane matters of American foreign policy. Nobody turned Harry Truman around in a big black chair, that's for sure. He unflinchingly made tough decisions, which were often controversial, like dropping the Bomb and relieving General Douglas MacArthur of his command. He likewise exhibited sand and gravel when coming to the defense of his family. His language was more often than not salty, but no handler ever  succeeded in hiding that fact from us or in obsructing our full view of the man from Independence.

At the risk of sounding cynical, the McCain-Obama race will probably serve only to underscore Bryce's insight.  Senator McCain, as a young man, distinguished himself by exhibiting uncommon courage in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, and for that his nation ought to be eternally grateful. But as a political figure his career has, in some ways, been less than inspiring. His recent willingness to curry favor with La Raza and, before that, his sponsorship with Senator Edward Kennedy of a "shamnesty" immigration bill, are only the latest two reasons why many citizens are disenchanted with him. Senator Obama, aside from being a gifted speaker who extols "change" in terms sufficiently vague to compete with a Magic Eight-Ball, has scarcely a single public achievement to commend his candidacy.

By now, you see that my contempt for the vacuous state of the 2008 Presidential Campaign is impossible to conceal. As both candidates' faces are framed by the four corners of my television screen, I find it difficult to overlook the puppet strings attached to their every statement and movement. "Just bring the handlers out, and let them speak!" is the sentiment that continually explodes in my brain. After listening to Barack Obama, I am reminded of a performer on a vast stage giving the public his best impression of an exuberant black evangelist.  Obama has the cadences down pat, but, as is true of most impressionists, the product that he is selling is one where form triumphs over substance. I have rarely heard him say anything beyond the pale of his party's left wing, and this assessment includes his celebrated speech on race. John McCain, on the other hand, with his monotonously generic greeting of "my friends" exudes zero charisma. He sometimes comports himself as if he is not sure where he is or what time of day it is. To his credit though, his thinking about foreign policy and, in particular, the recent "surge" in Iraq seems imbued with a sense of tough-minded realism, in which there appears to be a glimmer of wisdom and maybe even leadership. 

I like politicians to radiate intelligence. I also like them to exhibit their humanity occasionally in a way that is creative as opposed to downright insipid and stupid.  I remember watching Governor Nelson Rockefeller at a press conference he conducted at the 1968 National Republican Convention. He fielded one question after another from media jackals and was sensational at it!  They were laughing and enjoying themselves, and so was he. He exhibited humanity, humor, and an agile mind. He was instantly likeable, not to say immensely credible.

I was even momentarily invigorated when I saw "Tricky Dick" telling reporters in California, following his failed bid for the governorship there, that they "would not  have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore." Every now and then an average citizen like myself is able to catch a fleeting glimpse of a politician being himself, and the candor of the scene sometimes, in an ineffable way, endears the scoundrel to me. Of course, old Harry, who had long been retired from public life when Nixon unloaded on the media, assured us all that he would be back, and he was.  Tricky's promise, while untrue, was still refreshing!

What is missing in presidential politics are virtues of excellence and honesty and, by the latter, I mean a sense of who a candidate really is, not counting  embarrassing momentary lapses in credibility, such as not knowing that Poland was behind the Iron Curtain (Ford), confusing President Grover Cleveland with baseball star Grover Cleveland Alexander (Reagan), or attempting to rub the back of the Chancellor of Germany, Andrea Merkel, in full view of the whole wide world (George W. Bush).  

Diogenes, an ancient Greek, is reported to have walked around with a lamp trying to find an honest man. American voters, I think, can identify with him on that score, especially during a presidential campaign. The first candidate who unwittingly shows us some part of himself about which we can stand up and shout "Yes!", and gives us the confidence that he can think clearly and speak plainly about the issues confronting the world and our country, like the gradual loss of America's spiritual identity, will receive two thumbs-up from me along with, quite possibly, my vote. 

August 11, 2008