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The Buddy System

How the pernicious issue of “likability” has disfigured politics and the American presidency.

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It’s the final week before an election that activists from both parties are claiming is the most significant one in decades. Pollsters cannot agree on which candidate might win, and we face the prospect of legal battles that may stretch weeks beyond November 2. So it is a shame that the trembling index fingers of many undecided voters will likely be swayed by how “likable” they judge one man or the other to be.

In this frenzied campaign, we have been awash in political empathy, much of it cheap and condescending. President Bush, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, shouts out simple, unchangeable positions and claims that nuanced policy prescriptions are somehow immoral. Bush implies that, because he listens to his wife and prays every day, he would never have misled the country into war. Senator Kerry brandishes hunting rifles and says, “My faith affects everything that I do, in truth”—a claim curiously absent from his many previous campaigns. For both men, hugging voters they’ve just met and will never see again has become a ritual as banal as the roll call at a nominating convention.

Pundits dutifully chew over which candidate is more “likable” and “natural”; the old saw “Would you like to have a beer with him?” has resurfaced in a number of polls. Politicians and journalists alike assume that to be effective, a president must appear as warm, folksy, and sentimentally religious as most Americans believe themselves to be.

How puzzling, and disturbing, that the proud history of American democracy has come to this. Any decent survey of presidential history would reveal that our most successful chief executives have always been leaders, not huggers. They worried about how to serve and protect the country, not whether they shared the tastes, the beliefs, or felt the pain of its ordinary citizens.

George Washington was a famously distant figure who wanted his guests to obey aristocratic rules of etiquette when they came to the president’s house for dinner. Yet he secured financial independence for the new nation, kept it out of the war then raging in Europe, and gained a renown that reached beyond regional and partisan divisions.

Similarly, Lincoln, faced with the greatest crisis in U.S. history, demonstrated the virtues of a sober, almost impersonal state of mind. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, shut down critical newspapers, and stopped his generals from freeing the thousands of slaves who fled into their camps. His sole priority was to win the war in order to save the Union; the Emancipation Proclamation was essentially a military measure that didn’t apply to slave owners who spurned the Confederacy. These decisions were neither popular nor particularly humane, but they accomplished their end. If Lincoln had let empathy be his guide, the slave South may have remained a separate nation.

“Bored by serious talk about issues, we seek out moments of sentimental ‘truth.’ ”

Even Franklin Roosevelt, creator of the Fireside Chats, spoke more as a guiding parent than a sympathetic friend. In his first inaugural address, FDR referred only briefly to the millions who had lost their jobs, their savings, and good markets for their crops. He counseled Americans not to wallow in their misfortune. That was the meaning of “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and, later in the same speech, his assurance that “we are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for.”

Roosevelt did invite the members of his vast radio audience to “tell me your troubles.” But he never pretended he was anything but a martini-drinking patrician with inherited wealth. He shrewdly built a new majority coalition by taxing Republicans to help Democrats, as Kevin Phillips once put it. If Roosevelt had not been such a skillful politician, all his charm and self-confidence wouldn’t have done him much good.

And FDR’s greatest disciple was one of the least likable presidents in modern U.S. history. Lyndon Johnson mastered politics as the art of whatever it takes: Stuff ballot boxes, exploit one man’s lust and another’s vanity, Red-bait when necessary, and punish anyone who crosses you. LBJ was a failure on television; he almost never cracked a smile and favored a drawling monotone only a Lady Bird could love. But without his rough brand of Realpolitik, the landmark liberal programs of the sixties—civil rights, Medicare, aid to education—would never have become law. Domestic leadership didn’t require Johnson to be a pleasant fellow.

The same was true of LBJ’s clever successor. No one really believed Richard Nixon’s vow to “bring us together,” and everyone laughed when he strolled down the beach in dress shoes and black socks. But he was a brilliant strategist who adapted liberal ideas to his own purposes and converted communist China into a virtual ally. Nixon also showed how to turn the South into a Republican bastion, thus making his party the favorite in nearly every election since the early seventies. Only Nixon’s paranoia prevented him from becoming one of the most successful chief executives of the twentieth century.

So how to explain the triumph of the super-friendly style? It’s clearly a bipartisan malady. John Kennedy’s telegenic magic—“Superman comes to the supermarket,” Norman Mailer called it—was a watershed of sorts. But JFK did not go in for hugging strangers, at least not outside White House bedrooms.

The style became obligatory for nominees during the eighties. Ronald Reagan’s jokes about himself and zeal for clearing brush at his ranch—which later sold for a cool $5 million—spun the image of the regular guy as leader of the Free World. As a former television actor, he also understood the medium’s fondness for everyday heroes. Bill Clinton’s gushing urge to connect was as easy to ridicule as was his weakness for Big Macs. It was also tremendously seductive and hard to imitate, as Al Gore found out in 2000 and Kerry discovers when his quotes from Scripture fail to win the hearts of black churchgoers.

But Reagan and Clinton accomplished remarkably little during the sixteen years, combined, they spent in the White House. For all his big talk about small government, the Republican icon boosted federal spending and ran up a massive deficit. His stern rhetoric emboldened rebels in the Soviet bloc, but the power and confidence of communist leaders was ebbing years before he cursed the Evil Empire. Clinton’s prime achievement was to realize goals the GOP had long advocated—a balanced budget and welfare reform. And while talk-show regulars squabbled about his Arkansas investments and the health of his marriage, Newt Gingrich was taking over the House.

By conflating personality with political virtue, a nation of TV viewers is turning a bad habit into a tradition. Like shallow psychoanalysts, we imagine that every indication of stiffness and anger, every sigh and peek at a watch opens a window into a candidate’s soul. Bored by debates about issues that affect the whole world, we seek out moments of sentimental “truth” and easy amusement. To empathize, or rather to perform empathetically, is thus prized more than having a sound plan for extending health insurance or curbing the nuclear program of Kim Jong Il. The true flaw, my fellow Americans, is not in our campaigners, but in ourselves.


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