Los Angeles Times
Monday, March 22, 2004
Shallow Electorate’s Deep Flaws;
When will we seek out leaders, not photogenic ‘pals’ who appear no smarter than we are?
By MARGE PIERCY
It may be that television and the ever more aggressive investigative efforts of the news media have addled our ability to choose a leader wisely. Between sound bites and the seduction of images, we run a popularity contest every four years instead of an election.
Would Abraham Lincoln have a chance today? He was ugly. We like photogenic leaders. We want leaders who appear to be flawless in past and present, which limits the intelligence, curiosity and experience of our winning candidates. We prefer someone shallow to someone of wide and deep experience.
We have disqualified candidates for president and vice president because they wept. Apparently an inability to feel something deeply is required for high office. Thomas Eagleton was bumped out of contention for vice president because he had been smart enough to seek help when he needed it. Apparently we prefer untreated problems in our candidates. We respond to candidates as we have become accustomed to responding to celebrities: Would we like them, do we find them attractive, can we identify with the character they project on the screen?
We often appear more interested in the sexual adventures — or the lack of them — of our heroes than in their political positions, which would have cost Thomas Jefferson the presidency, as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Martin Luther King Jr. could not have led the civil rights movement if his affairs had been held against him. Sexual peccadilloes do not cost lives or wreck the economy.
Great leaders have always been flawed. Would Moses make it in sound bites? He stammered. He also was a felon and a fugitive. FDR had a severe disability.
Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis looked like Rocky Squirrel in a tank. We seem to believe that looking good in a military pose is more important than having a grasp of what war actually involves to the invading country and the invaded.
A sense of history would have helped immensely before we took on Iraq, but we are trained to mistrust men of ideas and obvious education. Our leaders should not appear to be smarter than we are.
The worst thing that a politician can be called is elitist — and what do we mean by that? In Iowa, Howard Dean was labeled that — a sushi-eating, PBS-watching, Volvo-driving man; not macho enough to win the vote of working men.
But who determines the massive layoffs and the movement of corporations abroad that gut the economies of so many cities and drive families from comfort into chaos? Those are the members of the real elite, and they aren’t defined by eating sushi or watching PBS.
There is a class of people who send their sons to the “best” private schools and the Ivy League universities, who join the interlocking boards of corporations and become their CEOs. These are the people who move the jobs to India and to China and to Guam. They are the people who support the notion that intellectuals are dangerous and intelligence is elitist. Their political propaganda claims that people who own oil companies and drive up the prices you pay at the pump are just regular guys who love NASCAR and football and eat barbecue and Big Macs. These power brokers are just luckier, more photogenic versions of you.
Often the Bible gets quoted in political contexts. But do the people who quote it actually read it? Those Bible stories resonate for us because they are often about leaders and people with important destinies — but these men and women are not cartoon heroes. Saul would be in danger of commitment to a mental institution. David not only had an affair but got rid of the husband. Jacob deceived his father on his deathbed. But they also overcame their flaws and in the long run they carried forward a vision. It is that vision that makes them memorable, and for that moral vision we still tell their stories.
Surely we could learn to vote in favor of those who will fight for our good, rather than the welfare of those who contribute heavily and profit from many government decisions.
It is deplorable that terrorists were able to affect the election in Spain, but 90% of the populace was opposed to joining in the invasion of Iraq. We are shocked because the Spanish voted in their own interest — and not in what we have been persuaded is ours. I wish we could learn to vote for our interests and not for the politician we think we would like best as our daddy or our pal.
Copyright: 2004 The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved.