Americans are making it plain that they’re disappointed with the quality of their public servants. Most Americans today, according to one poll, would throw all members of Congress out of office. And the president’s poll numbers have been in the proverbial tank for months.
In democracies, we often seek some magic formula for picking our leaders. For the presidency, we go through the “qualifications” ritual at every election. At times it seems like a resumé contest. There are exceptions, of course. In 2008 there was precious little attention paid by the mainstream media – the self-appointed “eyes and ears” of the public – to the qualifications of one Barack Hussein Obama Jr., and we are paying the price.
But what are “qualifications,” and what do they mean? Education? Our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, had only one year of formal schooling.
Experience? Woodrow Wilson had both superior education and superior experience, as a professor, university president, and governor of New Jersey. Yet he is remembered as much for his failures, especially his failure to bring America into the League of Nations, as for his vague successes. And consider Richard Nixon, possibly the best prepared man ever to assume the presidency. Did some good things, but his dark side won out.
What about character? Well, what about it? Franklin D. Roosevelt is generally considered one of our greatest presidents, yet he was often devious, dishonest and deceitful, and, besides, he cheated on his wife, and kept on cheating after she discovered his sins. Lincoln was generally an all right guy, but had a bit of a reputation for ego and selfishness. Harry Truman, a man who probably made more correct decisions than any president in modern history, played ball with the Kansas City political machine, cursed constantly, and was, despite the fact that he overcame it, something of a bigot.
What about honesty? Well, you’d have to define it. Jimmah Carter almost had a virtual sign outside the White House saying, “An honest man lives here.” Lot of good it did us.
In fact, there is no formula, and we will never find one. Ronald Reagan, on paper, looked troubling, but turned out to be a great or near-great president. Herbert Hoover, on paper, looked fantastic, and did some fine things, but the Wall Street ticker ticked him into oblivion.
What we must depend on in choosing our leaders is 1) accurate and complete reporting by the media, which we don’t always get; 2) an assessment from those who know him or her, which gives us some idea of his real reputation; and 3) our own instincts. Americans are a very instinctive people, and have a gut way of sizing up a candidate, when presented with good information. The people very rarely go off the deep end.
None of those things guarantees results. In 2000 we came within a hair of having Al Gore in the White House, and possibly saying goodbye to hot chocolate, hot coffee or anything else hot, like hot times. And in 2004 we came within a hair of having John Kerry, a man who could bore a corpse into deeper death.
But a discerning America chose the wiser Dwight Eisenhower over the verbally impressive Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, and had the good sense to send Jimmah back to the peanut farm in 1980, although we have not been successful at keeping him among the crops.
There are three things we seem to revere in great presidents. The first, of course, is good judgment, for which there is no substitute. The second is an ability, even understood before the electronic age, to connect with the people. And the third is a knack for turning a phrase, for using the English language as a weapon. Isn’t it remarkable that all the greats had these traits, to one degree or another.
So maybe, once we decide which candidate we agree with on the issues, we should look at that candidate’s judgment, as reflected in actual decisions, at the candidate’s ability to connect, and at the quality of his or her speeches. We could do worse. But, sooner or later, we’ll find someone who has all the magic characteristics, and he’ll turn out to be a real clunker.
The British use the phrase, “muddling through.” I suspect that’s the basic mode of operation in all democracies.
URGENT AGENDA (WWW.URGENTAGENDA.COM)
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