Michael Kazin: Our Buddy-Buddy Politics ... Personality Over Substance

Roundup: Historians' Take

Michael Kazin, in New York (Nov. 1, 2004):

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. ...

comments powered by Disqus