With Election Day 2008 more than a year-and-a-half off, already the presidential campaign is – sigh – energetically under way.
And already – groan – we hear the media discuss it as a popularity contest. As in 2000 and 2004, the media are at it again: Candidates are rated for "likability." Once again, we Americans are asked: With whom would we rather hang out? Once again, extraneous factors such as voice (Hillary Clinton's) and lack of hair (Rudy Giuliani's) are noted and mocked.
By these superficial measures, President Bush's perceived affability trumped the stiffness of Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry in the 2000 and 2004 elections. And look what it got us: a president who leaves an abysmal record that even many Republicans disavow.
Because of that record, America at present is caught in what poet W.H. Auden called a "night full of wrong." Given this unhappy state, why on earth would the media revive the high-school standard of leadership? And, apologies to the nation's responsible teenagers, but, developmentally, it's the adolescent who obsesses about and calibrates likability.
Yet likability and desirability as a lunch pal – key tests for some voters – are again echoed by the media on all sides: mainstream and new, on the left and right, in hip venues and in those trying hard to be. And already, all are applying this test to rate winners and losers. Who gave the media the authority to preselect our candidates? (To avoid an intramural dust-up, examples are left uncited, but they abound.)
Inevitably, of course, likability does creep in and we wonder: Can I bear to have Candidate X address me from the Oval Office? Some Democrats speak of the need to fall in love with their candidate. But, in truth, our relation to the president is not personal. MySpace does not link to "MyPresident." The great American experiment in democracy is faltering badly, yet the focus in elections is on personality, not on the ability to move the country forward.
To chart our way upward, we need character, vision, strategic thinking, sobriety, and the antique quality of virtue in our leaders. Moreover, the next president must possess the maturity both to repair what may have been broken by today's administration and to cede power back to the legislative and judicial branches, recalibrating what the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called "the imperial presidency." The 2008 election begs not for "likemanship," but for leadership.
I wonder how the great presidents of yesteryear would have fared under today's media test. Abraham Lincoln – savior in a time of crisis – probably would have been dismissed as a geek.
Fortunately, in our present crisis, an impressive array of presidential candidates, Democrat and Republican, is stepping forward (and more, seemingly, by the week). We need to hear in detail their policy ideas, their vision for our renaissance, their strategy for the yet-unanswered question of how to counter radical Islam. From Democrats, we need to hear more about responsibility; from Republicans, more about the commonweal.
What a tragedy if the media drumbeat about likability forces these impressive contenders to focus on their poll ratings and the mirror, rather than on what really matters.
It would be equally sad if the media again childishly trumpet any candidate's "flip-flopping" tendencies. Already, Tim Russert of "Meet the Press" employs the "flip-flop" term. Even National Public Radio does. Better for a candidate to change his mind and evolve his thinking – as adults do – than be unwavering when wrong (and be upended by history).
Put simply: In questioning the candidates, the adults – in the public and in the media – must wrest the microphone from those who act like adolescents. The media, so ready to reform others, must reform itself. It must stop rating popularity and start examining character, ideas, vision. It should not take a reader campaign or antisubscription drive to force the media to be responsible. What would Edward R. Murrow, a model of responsible journalism, think of covering – yet again – the presidential race as a popularity contest?
The media might also note playwright Arthur Miller's point made in his book "On Politics and the Art of Acting" about reporters having become drama critics, critiquing conflict and spectacle over substance. A repeat of "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" and "flip-flop" drama – big on conflict, scanty on substance (or truth) – should go underreported and left dead in the water.
For, truly, 2008 will be a watershed election. The fifth anniversary of 9/11, last September, was dismal because we recognized that we have not corrected ourselves. We must start now, by correcting how we appraise leadership. If substance replaces spectacle in media coverage, if character is weighted over personality, if maturity trumps adolescence, then the electorate will be prepared to vote wisely.
Americans believe in redemption. Let's revise how we pick presidents – and usher in political renewal.
• Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is working on a play titled "Prodigal" and a dramatic adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel, "The Custom of the Country."