Time for non-traditional candidates?


Radio talk show host Sean Hannity recently had Ann Coulter on one telephone line and a representative from the Young Democrats of America on another. The Young Democrat was unflustered in the face of a double-teamed attack, and Hannity, in the style of modern talk radio, interrupted often.

Name one, Hannity demanded repeatedly, name just one qualification that Barack Obama has to be president of the United States. The Young Democrat did her best with this tough question. But a good answer might have been that, while his resume is slim, Obama clearly has the only qualifications that the Constitution requires: He’s a natural born citizen over 35 years of age who has resided in our nation for 14 years. Otherwise, all he has to do to be president is convince enough voters.

Hannity, of course, already knew that Obama doesn’t bring a long list of accomplishments to the race for the presidency. In fact, Obama occasionally pokes self-deprecating fun at himself over his lack of experience. But his feasibility as a candidate in the minds of many people testifies to the fact that we often elect our presidents based not on what they’ve done, but on who they are.

President George W. Bush is a good example. He had very little to recommend him before he became governor of Texas in 1995. His academic record was average, he wasn’t a war hero and his business career was undistinguished. Nevertheless, he was elected governor and served for one and a half terms. While not everyone down here in Texas thinks that he did a spectacular job, it certainly wasn’t disgraceful.

But it also wasn’t enough to get him elected president on his accomplishments alone. George Bush has other obvious credentials that have more to do with who he is than with what he has done. He’s male, white and Christian. He’s not as handsome as Ronald Reagan, but he has the acceptable good-ol’-boy looks of someone whom some people thought they might want to have a beer with. He has hair. And he has money or, more important, he has connections to influential people who have even more money and were willing to donate it to elect him. Most important, his grandfather was a senator and his father was a president. In short, he had excellent connections to traditional American power.

Barack Obama has very few of these things. While his experience and accomplishments are often understated, the current attraction to him still seems out of proportion to his resume. What’s going on?

Perhaps the world’s grim prospects have shaken the voters’ confidence in the handsome white Christians we traditionally elect to lead our nation. They may be sensing that the path down which our presidents have led our nation is going to require some serious backtracking. Iraq may lead us to suspect that we’ll have to learn to wield our power in more subtle and deft ways, perhaps with more collaboration and compromise. It’s taken a while, but it’s finally dawning on us that global warming is real. And when our own oil consumption collides with the rise of China and India, it remains to be seen which the world exhausts first, our petroleum supply or our climate. In short, many ordinary people are beginning to notice serious storms on the horizon, and they may be increasingly willing to turn to new kinds of political leadership.

In many respects the leaders we’ve elected have served us reasonably well up until now, but the long line of white, wealthy, well-connected Christian presidents is showing signs of the weaknesses that come from too much inbreeding. Since the prospects for catastrophe are so daunting, voters may be open to being led in new directions by different kinds of people.

We’re still unlikely to elect a president who is overweight, bald, gay or atheist. But voters, to our surprise, may be inordinately attracted to a candidate who doesn’t fit the traditional mold. Someone who may be able to look at a rapidly changing world in new ways. Someone the rest of the world may perceive differently, as well. Maybe a woman. Maybe even a black man.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)