A ROUTINE headline and story in my local newspaper last Saturday encapsulates much of what disturbs many of us about contemporary electioneering. It was written about one of the Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, but almost any other candidate's name might well be substituted. We're awash in accounts like it.
The headline read: "Candidate Kerrey tries to project sharp image." The story, by journalist Jack W. Germond, recounted the senator's unsuccessful efforts at "presenting himself" to voters. "To say that Bob Kerrey has had a message problem is an understatement," Mr. Germond concluded.
Modern-day campaigns, we are told endlessly by those who cover them and, alas, as well by many who run them, involve mostly image and packaging. Many of the same experts then worry and wonder about the public's being "turned off" by politics.
Of course Americans are frustrated by the increasingly manipulative cast being given to our elections. They want less of vacuous sloganeering and finger-to-the wind posturing, more of honesty and candor, greater emphasis on the deep substance of leadership and policy. They understand that what matters in a candidate isn't the image he projects but the life he lives and the moral judgments he makes; not how facilely his "handlers" craft a "message" but how clearly he sees the actions needed to fulfill the
promise of American life.
American political life, for all its virtues, has always displayed plenty of imperfections. The late 20th century didn't introduce political rascality and mediocrity, or invent crude exercises in manipulation.
But it's incorrect, I think, to argue that nothing much has changed in recent decades. Never before in our history has electioneering been so dominated by a class of image merchants: reporters, TV anchors, pollsters, media gurus, strategists, analysts, and technicians of every shape and size. This "new class" of election managers sees the political world in its own image. They're suffocating our politics with that image.
It's going to be very hard to restore a proper balance to our politics. The new electoral class isn't going to go away. If some redress is to come, it will require that more voters punish - by rejecting them forthrightly - candidates unwilling or unable to provide deeper substance.
Fortunately, we have fine examples of politicians who have given such substance. This month we again celebrate the birthdays of the two greatest of them, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
Washington understood keenly the importance of political figures setting the right examples. He believed in the 1780s, for instance, that a new national government was needed, with augmented powers. But if a public that had just fought a costly war to overturn strong governmental authority were to grant these powers, it had to be assured they wouldn't be abused.
The answer wasn't to fashion a clever message, like: "I Hear You America - No New George III." Rather it was to earn the public's confidence through the way he handled power. This accounts for the importance Washington attached to his great "resignation" ceremonies - voluntarily giving up office when his power and popularity were at their highest tide. For example, he relinquished his command of the armed forces and went home to Mount Vernon immediately upon the departure of British forces from New York in late 1782; he began work on his Farewell Address while still in his first term, and gave it at the end of his second.
Through the force of example, Washington won trust the breadth and depth of which many today cannot imagine. This trust was extended not only by his countrymen, but also by many in other countries who were not thought to be his natural admirers - including the young, libertine English poet Lord Byron, who lauded Washington as "the Cincinnatus of the West."
That's the kind of moral standing no amount of "image sharpening" can ever attain. That's Washington's message to today's candidates.