I’m not necessarily a Tim Pawlenty supporter, however I do wonder about the recent description of him by a conservative media mainstay as too “vanilla.” In other words, the former Governor of Minnesota is boring.
Haven’t we had a lot of charisma lately and haven’t we learned that style doesn’t always translate into substance?
There have actually been some rather boring presidents who turned out to be pretty effective. For example, Calvin Coolidge was probably the most un-charismatic president in our history. He ascended to the highest office in our land the moment Warren Harding expired in a San Francisco hotel in August of 1923. Coolidge was at the family home in Plymouth Notch, Vermont at the time without telephone service or even electricity. When he received the news, he got down on his knees and prayed. Then his father, a notary public, administered the oath of office in the middle of the night—certainly a modest beginning.
Yet, he was overwhelmingly elected in his own right in November of 1924.
Known to us these days as “Silent Cal,” his economy of words was akin to his view on economics in general. He was thrifty, conservative, and talked a lot about character and values. One biographer later called him, somewhat cynically, a “Puritan in Babylon.” But like the actual Puritans of history (not the caricatures portrayed in modern text books and media), he was a man whose obvious decency was itself a rebuke to an increasingly indecent age.
Had Coolidge chosen to run again in 1928, there is little doubt that he would have been victorious. But it’s doubtful that Calvin Coolidge could make the first-round cut in our day. He’d not only be regarded as too vanilla, but he’d be nonfat and sugar-free.
To many Americans, Harry Truman was a welcome change of pace from the imperiousness of his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. His morning walks, friendly banter, and natural hospitality endeared him to many Americans. Remembered these days as feisty though, one wonders if he could survive long now without sound biting himself to political death. And very few people back then considered him all that charismatic.
At best, he was vanilla ice cream on apple pie. But he was an effective politician who defied political odds in 1948.
Of course, some presidents could have used more charisma—especially those who liked to act humble in an almost prideful sort of way. Jimmy Carter carrying his own luggage comes to mind. And then there was the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee who was surprisingly swept into power within months of the end of World War II in Europe—a war that was won in large part due to the leadership of his predecessor, Winston Churchill.
Someone once referred to Atlee in Churchill’s hearing as a “modest man”—a clear dig at Winston. His response was the classic retort: “Yes, he is a modest man with much to be modest about.” Churchill was known to admit that, while all men were worms, he surely was a glowworm.
In Clement Atlee’s case, his personal modesty, though temporarily attractive to an electorate weary of Churchillian grandiloquence, eventually gave way to another call for Winston Churchill to lead the nation in the early 1950s.
What all of this suggests is that there is no clear connection between personality style and actual governance. Charismatic leaders have at times been effective, especially during times of great crisis. But their great shining moments have often been tempered with brevity.
It is also true that rather boring leaders can turn out to be incredibly incompetent.
What this should tell us is that whether or not a candidate is vanilla or Cherry Garcia, such surface qualities should never be primary considerations.
The late comedian, Steve Allen, use to bemoan the fact that instead of electing leaders who can lead and teach, we tend to be drawn to cheerleaders.
Dallas Maverick’s basketball player Dirk Nowitzki may not have the communication gifts and public relations savvy of some sports figures, but he is the one you want to have the ball when the game is on the line.
Tim Pawlenty may or may not have what it takes to be a good president. But the decision about our next chief executive should be decided on the basis of something other than charisma or “gotcha” points in some televised debate-like showcase.
Mario Cuomo used to talk about how politics was poetry, while governing was prose. Well, we have a would-be poet in the White House these days. Maybe what we need next time is a Calvin Coolidge kind of leader—someone who is much more concerned about walking the walk than he is about talking at all.