Monday, January 28, 2008
(That’s “Ike” as in “Eisenhower,” not “Mike” as in “Huckabee” who uses a similar slogan for his campaign.)
If my memory serves me correctly, and I’m not sure it does, my introduction to politics came about when I was 9 years old. Eisenhower was running for President for the second time he would be elected. He never made it to Annapolis, the town where I grew up, but some notable Maryland Republicans and other Ike supporters staged a parade to promote his candidacy. My father, who I found out later was very interested in politics and would eventually run for office, twice – once for County Commissioner, and then later for Mayor – had managed to get us in the front row of the crowd lining both sides of the street. Holding my father’s hand, I watched them coming up West Street in their motorcade.
I was interested, but didn’t get it yet. I understood that there was a Presidential election, and that my father and so many others who had served under his command held Eisenhower in high regard. I suspect Eisenhower is why my father became a Republican after the war. And there they came, but while my father was watching at the officials that were waving, caught up in the hoopla of the moment, I was looking around, thinking about other stuff the way kids do. Most of all I remember the buttons. Someone walking along with the motorcade was throwing small “I Like Ike” buttons at the people, my father and me included. “This is all wrong,” I remember saying to myself, picking a couple of them up off the street with my one free hand. “These pins on the back could hurt someone.” And that’s what I was thinking when the bigshots in motorcade drove by, waving, so it seemed, directly at me. I was, after all, the cute little kid in the front row with the big eyes and curly hair. I stared back, a small reflexive smirk on my face, and bent over to pick up another pin.
Eight years later I was in Baltimore, at the Lord Baltimore Hotel during the Maryland Republican Party Convention which my father was attending. My Dad had gotten us great seats along the railing in the balcony of this large room, on the right side of the podium, in perfect position to see the speaker. We were there to see William Scranton, the Governor of Pennsylvania, announce his candidacy for President of the United States. The room was full and noisy when Governor Scranton took his place behind the microphone, putting a stack of pages on the stand in front of him. The crowd had barely quieted down when he began his speech.
He seemed ordinary, surprisingly so, until he started talking. What happened next was nothing short of stunning. I had never heard, let alone been that close to anyone who could deliver a speech like this. In no time at all, Scranton began tearing into the audience, one round of applause starting before the one before it had subsided, louder and louder in response to every come-on and well turned phrase. This was no campus audience. These were Republican men in suits, my father among them, on their feet with excitement. And I was mesmerized, by his energy and perfect timing, but most of all by the way he was himself caught up in the moment, taking page after page of his widely spaced text and throwing it onto the carpet behind him. Not just turning the pages, but throwing them away as if that one thought and those words had no particular or durable meaning.
Scranton would lose the nomination to Goldwater, but it didn’t make any difference. It was the drama in the room that I would always remember. It had been 12 years since I held my father’s hand while Eisenhower drove by. This time, I got it. That fall I would leave for college while some of my fellow high school graduates would go off to fight in what would become the unpopular war of the time. We would have our causes, our rallies and rousing speeches promising hope and a new direction that were the stuff for which the 60s would be remembered. Now, in retrospect, what did all that passion really accomplish?
Politics is a lot about emotion. I know that. It’s unavoidable, and important. We need to like the people we’re voting for and, if we’re lucky, to be inspired by them. Unfortunately, it’s arguable whether or not likeable, inspiring people can manage their way out of a paper bag, let alone run our federal government, develop and implement effective social and economic programs, while maintaining our national security, not to mention world peace. Our current President, for example, was elected largely because people liked him, or liked his more intelligent, more cable opponents less. Is there nothing his two terms in office have taught us about how to choose a President?
One of the current candidates, the least experienced among the major players in both parties, is a particularly moving speaker, and very likable. In fact, I’m seriously considering voting for him – eight years from now. Perhaps, by then, he’ll have something more tangible to offer us than stirring rhetoric. If he wants my vote now, he’s going to have to show me something more tangible. I understand the power of his intensity and the allure of his passion, but is there anything more to it? Other than the promise of a new direction, other than the feel-good speeches, we need to ask ourselves, what specifically does any candidate have to offer? Other than the hype, what makes us think this person can effectively manage routine and crisis government situations? You can’t really think that he or she is going to talk his way out of every problem, or create and implement meaningful government policy because of his skills as an orator?
I want to feel good about the President I elect, and I’m as dissatisfied as the next guy with our government’s performance. I, too, am desperate to believe that we can go in a new direction, almost to the point of not asking what, precisely, that means or how we’ll get there. Almost, but the overwhelming feeling of déjà vu keeps bringing me back to reality. Suppose, for example, that you are seriously ill, and need major surgery. Which doctor do you want operating on you? The freshman resident with minimal experience, but the wonderful, feel good bedside manner, or the course, no-nonsense professional who is more highly skilled? How is picking a President any different, particularly in light of what we all have at stake? Assuming we can’t have both, which skill set is more important? Inspirational speaking, or experienced management? On which doctor would you bet your life? On which candidate would you bet your country?