Looking for Mr. Congeniality

Michael Dukakis was too phlegmatic.  John Kerry was pompous and awkward.  Al Gore was superior and condescending—to George W. Bush, who presented himself as, to borrow Churchill’s phrase, “a modest man, with much to be modest about.”

Now it’s Mitt Romney’s turn.  Republicans, writes editor Jacob Weisberg, “are in the process of choosing a candidate whom hardly any of them actually likes.”

Why is it so important that people “actually like” their presidential candidates?  Are we electing them to be our friends?

It’s like going back to high school and electing a homecoming king, or choosing Miss Congeniality in a beauty pageant. Who’s nice?  Who would be great to have a beer with?  Who doesn’t get it?  In the 2004 campaign, Weisberg recalls, “John Kerry asked for his Philly cheesesteak with Swiss cheese” instead the customary provolone or Cheese Whiz.  In vain, says Weisberg, did supporters argue “that qualifications were what mattered.”  While “ordinary people found it easy to relate to [George W. Bush] at a personal level.”

Have we learned nothing from the last few elections?  We rejected Dukakis for being hyper-rational; we got George H.W. Bush—who looks better in retrospect, especially in comparison with his son, than he seemed at the time, but who got elected on the strength of an ill-advised and plainly-insincere no-new-taxes pledge (on which he reneged in office) and by traducing the moderate Dukakis as a Willie-Horton-furloughing, flag-disrespecting radical, and bequeathed us Clarence Thomas.

We rejected Gore, a clearly better-equipped candidate, because of his mannerisms, and got George W. Bush; ‘nuff said.

And in 2004, when it was clear that the war in Iraq was at best a fool’s errand and at worst based on falsified evidence; when it was clear that the administration of post-war Iraq had been disastrously mismanaged at the cost of thousands of lives and billions of dollars—after all that, we still chose Bush over Kerry because Kerry seemed vaguely continental and elitist.

None of this was secret.  We knew it all, and elected the less qualified candidates anyway.  The fault is ours—or at least belongs to those who knew (or should have known) better and still voted for clearly inferior candidates.

There is blame left over for the enablers in the media.  Weisberg may be right that “ordinary people” voted for George W. Bush because they “found it easy to relate to him at a personal level.”  But “ordinary people” didn’t report Kerry’s cheesesteak misadventure on TV.  Ordinary people didn’t inquire as to whether Dukakis, if his wife were raped and murdered, would “favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer”—as opposed, I supposed, to a reversible death penalty.

Why do they do it?  Why are voters and the media both so swayed by issues of personality that are at best tangential to a candidate’s fitness for office and at worse irrelevant?

Part of it has to be that stories about candidates eating cheesesteak, riding in tanks with odd-looking helmets and windsurfing make more entertaining stories.  They have visuals. They are easier to grasp and to form opinions on.

Stories about real issues, including a candidate’s experiential and psychological preparation for office, are harder to report and harder for voters to base decisions on.  Who really knows whether we should stay in Afghanistan, possibly more or less indefinitely and at a cost of billions of scarce dollars a year, to keep the Taliban in check, or leave and possibly see the country revert to its state before we came in?  Who knows how to balance the best interests of underwater mortgage-payers with the need to clear the housing market of foreclosed property?  Who knows how to ensure the long-term economic and political soundness of Social Security for a population with ever fewer paying into the system and ever more drawing from it, without reducing already meager benefits for those for whom it is the only source of income?

Far easier and more entertaining to report and form opinions on Romney’s awkward witticisms or Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dresses or Newt Gingrich’s account at Tiffany’s.

Those stories you can “Like” on Facebook.

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