My mother used to label all of the political speechifying of her era as “Man Who” speeches. You know, the stuff that starts out, “My fellow Americans, I have the honor to present to you the man who brought us to victory in Europe in WWII, the man who successfully led a major university, the man who….” And so on. It was useful shorthand, but I only grasped the reality behind it many years later.
We Americans aren’t looking for a president, we’re looking for a parent, or a messiah, or a monarch, or a star, or a sheriff. Most Americans think of themselves as political independents, even if they are in fact members of a political party. They consider the candidate’s personality more important that his party’s platform. Most Americans don’t really know the difference between Right and Left, liberal and conservative. They can tell you what kind of people become liberals and conservatives, but not what motivates them, what vision of the good they espouse.
What are we looking for in a candidate’s personality? We want to feel that the candidate is an Important Person, but also that he understands People Like Me. Since most voters are not Important Persons, this is a tall order. Similarly, we want to feel that the candidate is smarter than the Bad Guys, but not that he thinks he is smarter than me. (Does this imply that the Bad Guys are not smarter than me either? Hard to tell.)
We want to be sure that the candidate doesn’t make goofs or gaffes (which of course requires him to be smarter than most of us.) Or at least that he is competent enough to cover them up while it counts.
We want to feel that the candidate is a decent person, but not “holier than thou” or “sanctimonious” or worse still, a “hypocrite.” Again, this is a balancing act of extreme difficulty. We want to believe that the candidate believes in obeying the law, but not necessarily in enforcing all of its provisions on People Like Me.
All of this raises two grave concerns. First, as a practical matter, no candidate presents his or her real personality to the public. The candidate’s persona is a product, manufactured, marketed, and sold to a specific market for a specific purpose. If there is one thing the voter can be absolutely sure of in any political campaign above the level of mayor, it is that s/he will never know the real candidate’s personality. And second, even if it were possible to know the candidate’s real personality, that wouldn’t tell the voter much of what s/he needs to know about the candidate’s qualifications to govern the country.
Is there a job description for POTUS? Well, yes. It’s in Article II of the Constitution:
“The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.
“He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.
“The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.
“Section 3. He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in case of disagreement between them, with respect to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper; he shall receive ambassadors and other public ministers; he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and shall commission all the officers of the United States. “
None of this tells us anything about what kind of person is needed to do this job. So far as I know, no psychologist has done any kind of personality study of an ideal president, although there have been several thorough psychological evaluations of actual presidents, both successful and unsuccessful. (Bear in mind that one evaluator’s successful president may be another’s total failure.)
And, of course, as a practical matter, nowadays it takes a lot more than one person to do it at all. The cabinet and other presidential appointees named in Article II are only a fraction of the staff the president needs to do his job. And any politician these days is essentially the sum of his staff. So the job description applies to a whole group of people, only one of whom is actually on the ballot or subject to being vetted by the voters.
So while the voters obsess endlessly about whether they would be willing to have a cup of coffee with a particular candidate, the description of the job they are supposed to be filling goes unread and unattended to. And what we actually elect is somebody who may have no background or experience in the duties set out by the constitution, or, worse still, somebody who has all the wrong experience, in being a military commander, a business executive, or a media personality. On the other hand, we may elect somebody for all the wrong reasons and discover s/he is in fact just the right person. Both the Roosevelts were pleasant surprises, given their previous background. So were Eisenhower and Truman.
So I would really appreciate not hearing so much about the various personalities involved in a presidential election. Personality can be faked. As George Burns said about sincerity, “If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Policy can, of course, be lied about. Those of us who remember Lyndon Johnson, during the 1964 election, saying that he did not want to send American boys to do in Vietnam what Vietnamese boys should be doing, can vouch for that first-hand. There are a lot more examples where that came from, for younger readers. But being lied to about policy somehow doesn’t hurt as much as being deceived about personality. The latter leads to a sense of personal betrayal that, ultimately, leaves almost all voters past their second election totally disenchanted with the process, and therefore totally incapable of doing anything serious to change it. This needs more thought.