I am writing this column on the Sunday before the first presidential debates of 2012. Yet I can predict the outcome. The winner, declared by popular acclaim, will be the man who leaves the best impression –the man who avoids the guffaws and squeezes in a few clever remarks that can be tweeted around the world.
His supporting cast will include professional makeup artists, debate coaches, and a cadre of script writers armed with millions of dollars of market research. A “production” director will provide on-line prompts to the performer to maximize the drama. “Talking points” and “one-liners” will be carefully orchestrated and inserted for maximum impact. The actor will wear his rehearsed Clark Gable smile even when challenged. Occasionally a display of righteous indignation will put the audience on the edge of their seats. The winner will be a crowd pleaser – and yes, he will probably be the next president. If nothing els,e it will be great entertainment!
The debate this week will be a verbal tennis match where one-upmanship will win match, and probably game. Throughout the match, the players will wear masks as they hit the ball, their actual agendas and intentions hidden underneath their serves and choreography. Who are these people, and what are their “real” positions? I don’t know. I doubt many do. We hear only the poll-tested, empty BS. Few get to go backstage.
What are we looking for? Are we hiring a showman, a personable anchorman to flawlessly deliver the news of the nation to the public? Are we looking for a homecoming king to lead the parade? Or are we hiring a leader, a visionary who will work with Congress for results and not talk mostly to his fans – a man who will do the right thing for his country as he sees it with no apologies or excuses. Will the man who becomes the American Idol this week be the right man for the job of president? Or would flipping a coin be much different?
Presidential debates once were structured as a job interview for the most powerful position in the world. The applicants in naked face-to-face confrontation debated their positions on the major current problems, and said what they would do if they landed the job. Substance, not image, was the criteria. But with the advent of the media circus over the last 50 years, the debates have become popularity contests. Even the moderators strive for notoriety and supporting-role Oscars.
A man of integrity, with great leadership skills need not be a clever orator who makes a good impression. Several of our greatest past presidents would have failed miserably in the presidential media game show of today. The awkward and simple Abe Lincoln, the blunt-speaking Harry Truman, and the soft-spoken James Madison are a few examples. They were elected president because they proved their leadership ability, and the public knew exactly who they were and what they stood for.
Unfortunately, electing presidents these days is like sampling a box of chocolates. You are not sure what you are going to get until you bite into it.