The problems facing the next president of the United States are so daunting that anyone seeking the office is mentally suspect. The word "nuts” comes to mind.
How else could you describe someone who believes he has the answers to an economy in serious danger of self destruction in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, a war in the Middle East that may be quieting on one front but is ready to explode on another, the threat of uncontrolled nuclear proliferation with terrorist implications, a Russian premier who at times looks like the reincarnation of Joseph Stalin and a host of domestic problems that include the impending financial disaster of runaway entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security?
Simply put, a day in the Oval Office has to be like administering an insane asylum. Yet under the democratic system that Winston Churchill once said was horrible but still better than anything else, someone has to do it. That the nation has survived one cataclysm and incompetent guiding hand after another almost since they had to practically dragoon George Washington into the job, is itself a miracle and a tribute to the almost awesome perceptiveness of a group of founding Americans who built those checks and balances on power into the Constitution.
That has allowed us to prosper through even the most disappointing of our chief executives, including the current one, and to continue to delude ourselves every four years that the next person will be better. Like lemmings we place our faith in the system and follow the exorbitant promises of those running until they lead us over the cliff and into the abyss of the reality that no one has the answers to all our problems, only the Oz- like ability to calm our fears temporarily. Then we start looking for someone else.
From the fireside chats in the wheelchair that most of us didn’t know he used, Franklin Roosevelt was the master of this deception. Consequently, he was the one exception to the cycle of "what have you done for me lately?" decisions by the electorate. The price he paid was horrendous. When he died at 63 at the beginning of his fourth term — he looked like he was 90 — the country said never again would it trust someone that long and imposed a two-term limit.
So Americans will tune in on Friday to the first of three debates between the major party survivors of two solid years of political warfare — the first black American, Barack Obama, to reach this pinnacle and John McCain, the oldest to have gotten there. In the wings waiting is a good old boy Washington fixture, Joe Biden, with the requisite blue-collar roots and a mother of five, Sarah Palin, the first female the GOP has so honored.
A dear old colleague of long ago used to say that a candidate could always do better if he could prove that he was born barefoot and in a long cabin. Since neither of these contenders can make the cabin part of the claim, those watching and listening will have to decide solely on whose spin is best, who is perceived as better equipped for the task. The presidency is all about perception. Each candidate’s side will claim victory and wait anxiously until the polls prove them right or wrong. If they lose they will deny the accuracy of the surveying and produce their own contrary polls.
The much younger Obama will look and sound better and will win the TV beauty contest hands down. That can’t be dismissed lightly if one is old enough to remember Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in the same setting. McCain, the war hero, has the advantage of having been there and done that for more than three decades in Washington. All that experience may or may not work for him considering his sudden decision to also turn himself into a change candidate. The former beauty queen he picked as his running mate may be his best card.
Unfortunately, there is a factor in this election that speaks to the worst in us and in our system and that plus Palin have kept it a dead heat going into this debate despite all the odds. How much Obama’s race will figure into the equation is unknown, but it is out there. Otherwise, considering the mess a Republican administration has overseen for eight years, exacerbated suddenly by the perilous bail out of the economy, it would be no contest.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)