Copyright © by Len Holman, 12/14/11
Herman Cain was in the news for what seemed an eternity, now as faded as last year’s swim trunks, as Newt rises in the polls. Herman was not prominent because he invented a machine to provide unlimited energy for nothing. Not because he discovered life on Mars. It’s not because he cured Peyton Manning’s neck or solved the problem of world hunger. It’s because he is alleged to have had problems with women, and to have had a 13-year affair with another lady, including giving her money and texting her repeatedly. He has suspended his campaign, though he insists he will make an endorsement. The world waits with baited breath.
There is no end to the commentary on this guy, almost all of which concerns his predilections for ladies and his inept handling of the issue once the information was made public. Now, Cain joins a very long list of players in politics, and the question of whether he did or didn’t do anything, whether he handled it all well or badly, whether the media picked on poor Herman or not—all are irrelevant to the central issue: Who does a potential President need to be? What kind of person does he or she need to be? In short, what measurement do we, as a nation, use to choose the leader of the American body politic? If we want a leader—whatever that word may mean —what are the qualities which we want, the ones which will serve us all in these perilous times, and the perilous times which will surely come? A Washington, a Lincoln, a Millard Fillmore, a Reagan, a Jimmy Carter, maybe a Donald Trump? And even if we all mailed in our postcards with a name of a former President or other type of “leader” we would still be faced with the dilemma of identifying what made a particular person the leader we wish a current candidate would be.
What made Washington so great? Personality? Moral rectitude? Circumstances, shoe size, height or the ability to look good mounted on a horse? One often hears the phase “looks Presidential” in connection with some wannabe candidate, as though THAT was the thing which—if this person were elected on looking a certain way---would pacify the Congo, free Cubans to buy iPads, and get homeowners back to mowing their own lawns. By this criterion, Michele Bachmann might as well go home, since, biologically, she’ll NEVER look Presidential because all our Presidents so far have been men. Does “looking Presidential” apply to looking like one of our former Presidents, or looking like a candidate might DO well if elected? Does Newt fit any of those descriptions? Is a leader born and not made? Does it take a Civil War to make a Lincoln, or a War for Independence to make a Washington, or a World War to make a Roosevelt?
No amount of research by social science has ever defined what leadership is. Is a person a leader only in certain circumstances, under certain conditions, and at no other time? What should this person know? Where was the firestorm of repugnance and dismissive remarks when Cain muffed the Libya question? When Bachmann flubbed and distorted American History? If knowledge is important, then what kind of knowledge? Geographical, political, economic, social? Maybe a person could be an effective President if he hired experts in all the fields under consideration at any particular time, and called them to advise when needed. The thing is, the United States is up to its ears in experts, who sit in dim basements, shuffling papers in their cubicle, waiting for a call that never comes. The public says they want a leader “who will get things done.” But most of the time, getting things done doesn’t depend just on the President, but the congress, and the judiciary, not to mention that the things that DO get done might not be worth doing, or else downright inimical to U.S. interests.
Maybe Americans don’t really want a leader. Maybe they want someone to tell them soothing bedtime stories about American supremacy, go on vacation a lot, and generally stay invisible—in which case anyone can do that, except the Kardashian women, who don’t do invisible. Maybe the electorate wants energy and excitement, a promise to “return America to greatness” and hope. We all remember Obama’s rock-star travels, his promises, his holding out a treat to the starving doggie and promising not to take it away. So perhaps what we want is hope that the boogie man (Iran, natural disasters, underwater mortgages, etc.) will be chased away. It’s clear that—with the huge amount of money now required, the stranglehold of the two-party system, and the increasing infantilization of voters, we can only get what is offered to us, whoever that may be. And we think we’re choosing, like children whose parent offers them a red candy or a blue one and then tells us we can have either one and we’re so-o-o happy. We never stop to consider that there might be blue candies or purple ones or striped ones.
It is often said, by the chattering class, that a candidate’s former indiscretions are fair game because this simulates the pressure and scrutiny a President gets, and it winnows out the faint of heart. What about winnowing out the ones who don’t know, as Michele Bachmann didn’t, that the U.S. doesn’t have an embassy in Tehran, or who, like Rick Santorum, hold out the possibility of bombing Iran, or, like Rick Perry, who has categorically stated that Obama is making war on Christians? Or….well, the list is long. Since we have no definition of “leader” and probably wouldn’t know one if he or she lived next store, we have to make due with what we’ve got. It could be that Newt is no leader, but the best we can do is find out what his views are on a number of critical issues and choose by THAT set of parameters. It’s depressing to see voters thinking they can eyeball a candidate, listen to a few sound bites, and decide. That makes choosing a candidate like identifying porn. Voters think they know a leader when they see one. But some porn is well done and some is truly awful. Who will we get this time around? I guess we’ll just have to watch the whole movie to find out.
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