We Americans don’t so much pick our leaders as pick personalities. Qualifications matter but only so much. A talented technocrat or an unabashed intellectual would stand little chance of winning high office without charm and guile to match. It wasn’t always so. Before modern media, a taciturn stiff like Calvin Coolidge, of whom Dorothy Parker, when told of his passing, asked, "How could they tell?” could lead the Republic. No more. Being telegenic is a must.
The Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960 may have ushered in the television age, but its apotheosis came during the 2000 presidential election when a demonstrable incompetent faced a wooden wonk. Bush ran, above all, as a swell fellow, the kind of guy with whom you’d like to drink a beer. His policy initiatives, aside from a massively irresponsible tax cut for the most affluent, were as anodyne as his self-described philosophy, compassionate conservatism. That this vacuous late-bloomer became his party’s nominee shocked even his parents. He had a secret weapon, though: Al Gore. As whip smart and experienced as he was drab and dull, Gore resembled a patronizing college professor. He offered competence, in contrast to the bumbling jester running against him, but with no sugar to help it go down. That Gore won the popular vote doesn’t detract from the larger point, particularly since Bush prevailed four years later in a repeat of the same scenario.
Perhaps aware of the inadequacy of the criteria we rely so heavily on when making judgments about whom to place our trust in, we look to candidates’ private lives for clues. It’s a fool’s errand. There’s no evidence that virtuous leadership is better assured by picking leaders with virtuous private lives, as do-gooders at home aren't necessary able to do the public’s good. Were otherwise, Richard Nixon might be on Mount Rushmore and the womanizing Martin Luther King wouldn’t be honored with a national holiday.
Yet we persist. A familiar charade ensues, on par with the tired cliché of a politician kissing a baby, where political candidates trot out their spouses and children to testify to their character. But what good does it do know that Michelle Obama loves her husband or that all five of Mitt Romney’s sons think he’s a fabulous dad? Does that impart any useful information? Are we now better able to judge how either might handle a world crisis? Worse is the hypocrisy of such theatre.
Running for office is unfathomably demanding. A presidential campaign, for example, lasts over two years, during which time candidates make thousands of stops across the country in between media availabilities, fundraisers, and countless other events. The bruising process may be the best way to select someone able to handle the rigors of the job, but it surely strains family life. Therein lies the paradox: anyone who truly puts family first would never run, much less serve as president, prompting one former political insider to say that seeking the office requires almost pathological narcissism.
If parading spouses and children is a grotesque pretense, why, then, do we revel when it’s proven, typically during a sex scandal when the “family values” candidate fails to live up to billing? The joke is on us, as we set the bogus standards that our political leaders must strive to achieve. It’s our own misguided search for indicators about character that are to blame. If we stuck with the one relevant measure of a candidate’s qualifications, their public record on matters of policy, then we’d avoid the whole mess.
The irony is that the personal foibles of our most storied leader’s are well known. John Kennedy was a pathological philanderer and the great Supreme Court Justice William Douglas an egotistical loner. Andrew Jackson had a volcanic temper and held grudges while many acquaintances considered Lincoln cold and brooding. In the wholeness of time, we see our leaders as humans, with the many frailties that go along with the species. But in the moment we are less forgiving, asking the impossible of them on matters that aren’t relevant while often overlooking the most important measures of those matters that are. Such are the values in our “family values” tabloid age.