Republicans and Democrats agree that these are difficult times: we have a stagnant economy, a dysfunctional government, and a war on terror to wage. We agree that we need a great leader. Is President Obama one? Republicans and Democrats also happen to agree that he simply is not. For this critical moment in history, the consensus is that he simply will not suffice.
Great leaders have both the vision and the ability to motivate themselves and others to achieve difficult tasks. President Obama, on the other hand, won’t stop talking, putting in more media time than any president in history, giving speech after speech and interview after interview. He’s trying simply to wear down the American people – particularly those in swing states – and coax them into agreeing with him against their better instincts. When they do not buy what he is selling, he says that he hasn’t done enough to sell it to them—quite the opposite of the problem.
When covering Republican candidates, the media has predictably focused on trivialities: Rick Perry’s hair, Newt Gingrich’s stomach, Jon Huntsman’s daughters, rather than on leadership ability. The media will do anything to escape discussing ideas. Ideas are boring, and the American people aren’t smart enough to discuss them, the media seem to believe. If this is true, the race for the highest and most important office on earth then becomes a human interest story.
In a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, Aldous Huxley predicted that the coming age of electoral politics would be increasingly focused on image, on aesthetics, on style, rather than substance. With the advent of television and the science of psychology, he said,v marketing and public relations would progress cumulatively, as sciences do, and people would become increasingly gullible. Two years later, Kennedy famously beat Nixon to those who watched on television, and lost to those listening on the radio, and Huxley was to be proven right every four years.
If personality had been so heavily weighted in selecting our great leaders of the past, America would have missed out on some of its greatest leaders. George Washington was one of the worst public speakers in America at the time he led the American Revolution and became president. Thomas Jefferson only gave two speeches in his entire presidency: at his inaugurations.
Imagine, as I often do, Abraham Lincoln competing in one of the endless Republican debates of this cycle. Imagine our greatest president taking a question from Anderson Cooper, his time divided up with ten other candidates, his answer focus-grouped, his appearance scrutinized, and his poll numbers updated daily. He was, before his nomination for president, a Congressman who had lost a run for Senate. Jon Huntsman has a better resume.
Or, again, imagine explaining to our greatest president, as he sits by your side watching the debates, some pieces of recent history: a president receiving oral sex from an intern, that very intern going on to become a celebrity who made a fortune in diet pill advertisements, a president who frequently goes on ESPN to talk about sports, a president who goes on comedy programs and jokes about the Special Olympics. President Obama, even by modern presidential standards, puts in a jaw-dropping amount of media time. By any other standard he is closer to a pundit than a president.
Imagine explaining to Lincoln the millions of dollars spent on presidential campaigns, or the nonstop political chatter on the internet. Even the master of the bully pulpit, Theodore Roosevelt, would be amazed at how much of the modern presidency consists in talking to the media.
The media, which is noisier than ever, has become obsessed with frivolities. It is up to us, the consumers, to change that; we can simply not watch certain stations and watch others instead, or none at all. We can read only periodicals of substance (something you can give yourself credit for doing, since you are reading this), and put the superficial ones out of business.
Lincoln was not a great leader because he was a great speaker, or because he was a great retail politician; he was a great leader because of his unwavering commitment to the right ideas. Let us demand a candidate, not with the audacity of hope, but the courage of truth.