Opportunity abounds for historical perspective to triumph! At least in tiny cliques of the historically informed here and there, where the sages cluck their tongues and reiterate endlessly, “Here we go again!” I refer to presidential election politics, “of course.”
The marvelous journalistic media assure we shall have our daily presentist mixed doses of shock and surprise, banality and the constant insistence that so much of what we see and hear is entirely new, unprecedented, even revolutionary.
Need a new way to lambaste a candidate who is too: old, young, verbose, close-mouthed, tall, short, liberal, conservative, inexperienced, connected, religious, irreligious . . . ? Those descriptors immediately call to mind: Reagan, Kennedy, Stevenson, Coolidge, Lincoln, Douglas, Clinton, Goldwater, Obama, Hayes, Wilson, Roosevelt . . . . Why, when RR ran in 1980 one would have thought some people expected a state funeral not long after inauguration — that is, IF the poor old guy lived long enough. (Hear the echoes directed toward McCain). There is always something to make fun of, either just for fun, or with sincere malicious intent.
So, what about the Paris Hilton thing this week? Fun, obviously. But what is so new about celebrities weighing in either to poke fun, or to soberly advocate the merits of their favored candidate? Nothing new there, not in all the history of American politics.
But it’s not fun for John McCain, really. What a challenge is laid before him! Consider the candidates and the varied, sometimes secondary, characteristics that influence voters. Who’s more entertaining? Who’s a better cheerleader? Who exudes youth and virility? Who shows confidence borne of experience? Who’s the better debater (wouldn’t we like to know . . . )? Who’s more experienced overall (whoops, probably should be in another list)? Who better represents the U.S.A. demographically, attitudinally, and ideologically (are there some great debating points here)? Whom should we expect to work better with our multicultural America (an unfair question, or quite apt?)? Who would work better with the Congress? Who would help our international image and acceptability (don’t even suggest that’s not important!)?
No, John McCain is no rock star, no “celebrity” as we understand the word. But neither is Barack Obama, though I get the feeling many Americans deep down want a celebrity president — at least someone with the substance, respectability, depth, and character to make us feel better about our top leadership. With that celebrity they want some substance, a strong, respectable image, and confidence.
I think the more important features in that list are in reach both for McCain and Obama. I think we should demand those things. We don’t want celebrities, we want statesmen-leaders. We shall see what we get.
Let’s not forget: McCain and Obama are senators. That fact merits more discussion than it has gotten recently. Yes, McCain has been a senator longer, and the quality of that experience, its depth, is something we need to consider. Most Americans will not dwell on it though. One question dominates: how did these men become senators in the first place? Did they just throw their names in the hat? An appreciable electorate made them senators, no doubt trusting (hoping mightily?) that in the short and long terms they would do some good for their constituencies. That’s nothing to disparage.
Let’s remember, too, that the presidency is at best a humble office. At best it requires greatness in (so far) a man, and the American electorate does not long reward someone who makes us look bad (well, there is the Twenty-second Amendment for extra protection in that case, or even for more expressly partisan purposes, if you will). The comedians and humorists, and Paris Hilton, have a point, even as their jokes and poking fun acknowledge the power of celebrity in our culture. Yes, celebrity attracts us. But there is another side to the matter. A presidential candidate should not try to be God’s best gift to humankind.
Yet at the end of the day we want the kind of confidence, the sense of support, that assures us there are strong, principled, constant persons backing up our lifestyles, our dreams, our goals, and our efforts. These are considerations not entirely determined by age and experience, purpose and motivation, attitude and character. But these things are important. They are akin to the support we appreciate from the folk we value in our lives — those we can always count on to encourage us and to help us in times of trouble — like family elders, brothers and sisters, ministers and priests, coaches, teachers. These are the very qualities we expect from our civil servants from the local to national levels. At best we also expect that of ourselves in our civic and community service (we need to remember that!).
What do we need in a president? Paris Hilton cannot tell us, no, not really — that’s a media-commodity-entertainment thing. We need a president who evokes his commonality with us in our common life, who works to assure that security and liberty are maintained, who knows what makes a nation great in the community of nations and seeks to enhance that community, and who listens well.
I wish we had stronger candidates. Honestly, I cannot think of any presidential campaign, ever, when someone would not have said just that. But there is a truism not always fulfilled in American presidential history. The men have generally risen to the demands of the office. Some have fallen short. A few have succeeded beyond all human expectation. I am more sanguine about such prospects for McCain and Obama, but as always we shall have to wait, and see. For example, a key mark of competence and wisdom consists in the qualities of those cabinet, staff, and agency servants whom our presidents choose to help them advance their responsibilities in office. That has not always been well done.
One more thing: shouldn’t we be taking a look at the composition of our Congress for the next few years? Ponder the argument that the Congress actually is more important when we want to get things done. But that’s another discussion.