We have begun the process of choosing our president for the next four-year term, which is sure to be a time of danger. So far, the only announced candidates are Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, while the most likely Democratic candidate is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This will be one of the most important decisions we will ever make. But how will we make it?
Years ago, I was studying for my medical subspecialty-board exams. The brochure noted that the exam would be scored and the top candidates selected. Then the computer would reveal the questions that the majority of the top people got wrong.
These questions were “negative discriminants.” That is, if you got the answers to these questions “right,” you were probably not in the top group. Either the answers provided were incorrect, or the questions were unclear. So these questions were thrown out and the exam rescored.
But could this principle apply generally? Are there qualities that are “negative discriminants” in the presidential race? That is, if the candidate has these qualities, he or she will be less likely to be elected – or, more important, be less likely to be a good president.
What are these qualities? Obviously, if candidates are ill-tempered and obnoxious, they will not do well. But are there good qualities that also make a candidate less likely to win election? Are there positive qualities that are “negative discriminants”? I believe that there are.
● Is he or she too thoughtful? During the 2008 campaign, Senator Fred Thompson did poorly and dropped out. In the debates, he answered slowly, as if he were thinking out a logical reply. But the other candidates answered immediately, as if they were regurgitating “talking points” their handlers had fed them.
A thoughtful person who answers slowly is ideal for most roles in life. But a president may have to make crucial decisions on a moment’s notice. Rightly or wrongly, people want someone who is thoughtful, but not too thoughtful – that is, indecisive. But as a result, we got Barack Obama, who never paused to think things out, but simply parroted a stock “progressive” reply.
● Is he or she too nice? Mitt Romney seemed to me the ideal next-door neighbor. Wild parties? No way. Watch your house when you’re away? Of course. But I worried that in a world filled with thugs, a polite, mild-mannered fellow might not be able to handle violent despots. I worried that what were positive qualities in an individual might prove to be negatives in a world leader.
● Is he or she too honest? In 2008 and again in 2012, Obama repeated ad nauseam claims that under his health-insurance plan, more care would be given to more people at less cost. Most people knew, consciously or subconsciously, that this is impossible – but it surely sounded nice.
And Obama repeated endlessly that if you liked your plan, you could keep your plan, and if you liked your doctor, you could keep your doctor. These promises also seemed too good to be true – almost like the TV commercial that promises to give you two free suits if you buy one. But again, it surely sounded nice.
What if Obama stated honestly that he would put extra taxes on “Cadillac” plans – that is, he would penalize prudent people who bought good insurance with their own money? What if he stated honestly that he would put extra taxes on manufacturers of medical devices – that is, he would penalize people who make life-saving equipment?
Obviously, such honesty would have been the death-knell for Obama’s candidacy. But what lesson did this teach future candidates? To lie through their teeth, as long as the compliant, submissive media were on their side. This is a lesson on how to advance the cause of a dictator, not the president of a free nation. Is this really the lesson we want to remain on the books?
Have we reached the point that a candidate’s positive qualities have become “negative discriminants” that work against him in the electoral process? I think we have. We may have reached the point that a genuine person can no longer become president.
Today we would never elect Lincoln, with his homely face, his high-pitched voice, his baggy suits – and his honesty. The TV cameras would hate him, and in the media age, that would be as fatal as John Wilkes Booth’s bullet. Today we would never elect Franklin Roosevelt, who wore leg braces, used a wheelchair, looked older than he was, and (horror!) smoked cigarettes. I’m not sure we would elect Reagan today. Yes, he was a superb speaker, but he was so wrinkled.
The current generation grew up watching TV, but not the TV I watched as a child. There is no more “Playhouse 90,” “U.S. Steel Hour,” or “Philco Playhouse,” where I watched fine actors − often middle aged or elderly − playing interesting, deep characters. There is no more “Voice of Firestone” or “Bell Telephone Hour,” where I watched great musicians − sometimes old and fat − sing or play the classics. There is no more “Victory at Sea,” where I watched scenes of World War II with the real participants, not handsome actors.
Today’s young people grow up watching “Entertainment Tonight,” where beautiful young people describe the brainless activities of other beautiful young people. They watch the local news, which almost every night has a plastic-surgery report, describing the latest methods to look beautiful and young. They watch commercials, which tout the newest products to keep us looking beautiful and young. They watch sitcoms, where they see people who are beautiful and young. And they watch “reality” shows, where scantily clad, good-looking young people pretend to be dealing with reality.
What do you expect people who grow up like that to do in an election season?
● Do you expect them to vote for a person who looks his or her age? No, they prefer someone like Barack Obama, who was in his forties but looked in his thirties. To them, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan are beginning to look old. In fact, if Obama could run for a third term, I believe he might lose – not because of the bad job he has done, but because of his wrinkles and gray hair.
● Do you expect them to vote for someone who is calm and reserved? No, they prefer someone who is “wired,” like the show-business stars they see nightly and take as role models – that is, until the stars enter rehab or die of overdoses.
● Do you expect them to vote for someone who speaks honestly about his program? No, they prefer someone who speaks in vague, sweeping generalities about “change,” but who omits all the pesky details.
● Do you expect them to sit still for details, even if the candidate gave details? How could they, when they are habituated to seven-second sound bites and video clips? Many of them didn’t develop attention-deficit disorder; they were taught to have it by our hare-brained media.
● Do you expect them to have the patience to dig out what the person actually said, rather than passively accept what the media said he said? For example, did Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu really say that Arabs were coming to the polls in “droves,” a term that can mean “herds of cattle, sheep, or swine”? No, he said “great numbers,” which has no negative connotations. It’s not just the few big lies like “hands up, don’t shoot” that misinform us. Even more, it’s the many small lies – the misquotes, the quotes out of context, the photos of people in unflattering poses – that mislead us.
If a candidate has “negative discriminants,” we have to decide whether they are negative in relation to his job performance as president, or merely in relation to his appearance. We have to decide whether, in this media age, we are limiting ourselves to candidates who look handsome or beautiful enough on TV, and who project an image of youth and frenetic energy.
We have to recognize the difference between electronic media, where young, good-looking people pretend to be doing something, and real life, where real people really do what is necessary to keep us out of real trouble.
We have to decide whether our nation can afford to overlook candidates who are not photogenic, young, and bursting with energy, but instead are ordinary-looking, older, and calm. Maybe calm isn’t a bad quality for a leader in a dangerous time.
We have to decide whether we can survive in a dangerous world if we allow rhetoric to substitute for thought, generalities to substitute for specifics, feelings to substitute for facts, good intentions to substitute for effective action, and appearance to substitute for reality.
The optimist believes that people get the government they deserve.
The pessimist fears that this is true.
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