America’s Leadership is Heading ... Where?

A satirical look at the U.S. presidential race.

America is experiencing a change in the nature of leadership. We’re getting rid of our leaders. And we’re starting at the top. In the current race for the presidency, a variety of people with modest accomplishments, limited ideas, minimal charisma and acknowledged character flaws put themselves forward for nomination. Each claimed to be capable of leading the nation.

Nearly a score of them were taken seriously. Eight or 10 have been, at one time or another, strong contenders in the opinion polls.

They share one trait. None of them seems presidential.

The problem is not their politics. The problem is their affect. Survey the field and think about childhood games of follow-the-leader. These are the kids we were trying to lose.

If America didn’t want a poor choice of leaders, America wouldn’t have a poor choice of leaders.

We’re a democratic country, free to make our own decisions, and we have strong personal feelings about our decision-making. That’s the problem.

“Don’t take this personally” is good advice, especially in a political system based on the rule of law and not of persons. But selecting the president has become increasingly personal.

We used to vote for people we admired. Admiration is best done from afar. The expansion of mass media in the 20th century made it hard for the leaders to keep their distance from the led. We, personally, knew too much about them.

William Howard Taft was respected for his gravitas. He had it literally. He weighed 340 pounds.

When the Progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt threatened to defy the laws of political gravity we turned to the brilliance of Woodrow Wilson. He’d been president of a college everyone had heard of back when going to college was an unheard of thing. Surely he was smart enough to keep the world war a world away.

Coolidge was possessed of calm, the eye of the Roaring Twenties storm. But pouring oil on troubled water only works in metaphors and probably pollutes the environment.

Hoover was a great technocrat, the engineer tending the boiler of American economic growth.

FDR was full of innovative plans for replacement and repair when the boiler exploded.

On close inspection all feet are clay. The march of leadership was tracking dirt across the national carpet. We were personally disappointed in our leaders.

If leadership is a personal matter, it makes sense to abandon hero worship and pick leaders on a personal basis, because we like them. The trend is evident as far back as Warren Harding, who was nothing if not—and nothing other than—affable.

Franklin Roosevelt was a ruthless politician who knew how to cozy up for fireside chats, the wolf feigning kitten on our hearth. Don’t let on that grandma voted for Wilkie.

Harry Truman was everybody’s poker buddy while Thomas E. Dewey, a former prosecutor, would have called our bluff when we bet $10 on a pair of fours.

“I Like Ike” was the nonpareil campaign slogan. The best Adlai Stevenson could do was “We Need Adlai Badly,” and badly was how his campaign went. From then until this year the more likable presidential candidate usually won.

Exceptions came only in exceptional circumstances. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named Richard Nixon ran in the throes of a lost war and then against mooncalf George McGovern. The grating Jimmy Carter was selected from a field of political debris left behind by Washington’s worst political scandal.

Otherwise, Jack Kennedy’s wink defeated Tricky Dick’s glare. Rowdy cowboy LBJ prevailed over stern, scary Goldwater. Reagan raised a toast of good cheer while Carter and Mondale offered pickles. Bush was a day at the Kennebunkport beach, Dukakis was a month of homework.

Bush invited us to a Republican Party but Clinton held a kegger. George W.’s frat boy antics (and friendly Supreme Court) held more appeal than a man who, himself, joked that the Secret Service code name for Al Gore was “Al Gore.” John Kerry lost us when he ordered Swiss on a Philly cheese steak. And with Barack Obama, first the hope beat cranky John McCain, then the change beat the folding money of a boring old rich guy.

But amiability can be as tenuous as admirability. Mass media made admirable leaders harder to like. Mass media’s New Media stepchildren—24-hour cable news, the Internet, social media—made likable leaders disappear.

We’ve now learned everyone’s dark secrets. Our leaders don’t turn out to be likable after all.

Kennedy was a philanderer. Johnson was too, and a monomaniac besides. Distant and chilly parent Ronald Reagan concealed his slide into senility. Bush 41 was so out of touch that he was astonished by the workings of a grocery store checkout counter.

We know more about Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes than we can, if we’re of a certain age, remember about our own. W. pranked us into going to war. And while we may still like Obama, he doesn’t like us. The look of disappointment rarely leaves his face. When he goes on TV, we know we’ll get scolded.

Leadership has become more personal yet. We’re not satisfied with liking our leaders. We want the truth. We want to know them as humans. We want our leaders to be authentic.

And we’ve succeeded. All of our presidential candidates are authentically human, which is to say deeply flawed.

Admirable leaders may not display the virtues we expected. Amiable leaders may not be the friendly guides we sought. But we seem intent on electing a leader we neither look up to nor like.

Therefore we will elect someone with no means to lead us. And we’ll have no leader at all.

Which sounds like a grim prediction. But we are a democratic country, free to make our own decisions. And maybe we’re worrying ourselves too much about our political leadership—admirable, amiable or whatever.

My Irish grandfather used to tell me a story about an Irish politician sitting in a pub. All of a sudden an angry crowd comes marching down the street waving placards and shouting slogans.

“What do they want and where are they marching?” asks someone in the pub.

“I don’t know,” says the politician. “But I’d better run out there and get to the front of the march. They need somebody to lead them!”

Authors

  • P.J. O'Rourke

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute