By PAUL C. CAMPOS
Getting elected president is much like winning a high school popularity contest, except that in high school the cool kids generally aren’t given access to thermonuclear weapons.
This point has been driven home with special force recently. Consider the brouhaha that erupted over Joe Biden’s description of Barak Obama as “articulate and clean and bright and a nice-looking guy.” Almost all the commentary about this statement has focused on the racial stereotypes that Biden tripped all over.
And indeed there’s no question that Obama has become one of the favorites for his party’s presidential nomination because he’s an example of the Non-Threatening Black Male syndrome. In short, he’s an African-American man who “talks white” but still seems vaguely hip in a “black” way to whites who are impressed by how articulate, and clean, and bright and nice-looking he is. (Other good examples are Will Smith’s acting career and Tommy Amaker’s continuing employment as Michigan’s basketball coach).
But leaving the racial clumsiness of Biden’s comments aside, they do have the virtue, if only inadvertently, of highlighting the dubious sources of Obama’s rocket-like ride toward the front of the presidential field.
There’s no question that Obama is a very impressive man who has accomplished a great deal at a young age, but in terms of national politics his resume is quite thin. Until a little more than two years ago he was a state legislator, and his brief stay in the U.S. Senate has yet to be distinguished by any notable accomplishments.
Yet in an age when George W. Bush can be elected president, who can complain when someone like Obama is treated as a plausible presidential candidate? After all, Bush had no accomplishments to speak of, political or otherwise, when he was more or less handed the governorship of Texas, in much the same way a feudal duchy might be turned over to the ne’er do well son of a prince.
The governorship of Texas is one of the weakest of any state in terms of actual executive power, and yet Bush suddenly found himself at the front of the GOP presidential field in 2000. And what was the key to his otherwise inexplicable rise to the top of American politics?
Besides the obvious answer — he was the son of George H.W. Bush and hadn’t been convicted of any felonies — Bush’s personality was thought to make him presidential material. Specifically, he was judged by those who decided to put him forward to be “likeable.” Here was a “compassionate conservative,” whose hardscrabble exterior, formed by years of clearing brush on his hardscrabble Crawford ranch (the ranch was actually purchased and constructed in 1999-2000 to make Bush seem more authentically Texan despite his impeccable preppie roots), hid a warm and affable heart.
He was, as Chris Matthews repeated a few thousand times on “Hardball,”a guy you’d like to have a beer with.”
This sort of nonsense would be merely funny if it wasn’t so invidious. The notion that the key characteristic presidential candidates need to have is that they be deemed “likeable” is a dangerous bit of cultural idiocy that needs to be fought at every turn.
Would you choose a heart surgeon on the basis of whether you wanted to have a beer with him? Would you pick a lawyer because you liked the way she did her hair?
Speaking of which, a couple of weeks ago journalist Andrew Sullivan, while appearing on the “Chris Matthews Show,” noted that although he found most of Hillary Clinton’s policies attractive, he found it hard to support her candidacy because, “when I see her again, all the cootie vibes sort of resurrect themselves.”
Are we choosing presidents or electing homecoming kings? (Or, assuming the cootie factor can be someday overcome, queens).
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)