It's come to this. The long downward slide may not end here, but it's brought us what should -- if we're lucky -- be the nadir of American politics: a point at which characteristics that in any other circumstances would be admirable in just about anyone are actually undesirable if that person is running for president.
Never mind being unfit for office. It's now entirely possible to be too fit for office.
Call this picture "exhibit A."
Truth be known, it's not like we only just arrived at this point. It was clear to me that we were there when a television news program devoted several agonizing minutes to discussion focused on one question: Do we really need the president to be smart? And there was doubt as to the answer.
Fast forward to the here & now and we find ourselves in the midst of a presidential race in which being intelligent, articulate, and even physically fit may hurt -- not help -- a candidate's chances of being elected. Or so it's thought. The latest evidence of this appeared in a Wall Street Journal piece I'd initially hoped was satire.
Speaking to donors at a San Diego fund-raiser last month, Barack Obama reassured the crowd that he wouldn't give in to Republican tactics to throw his candidacy off track.
"Listen, I'm skinny but I'm tough," Sen. Obama said.
But in a nation in which 66% of the voting-age population is overweight and 32% is obese, could Sen. Obama's skinniness be a liability? Despite his visits to waffle houses, ice-cream parlors and greasy-spoon diners around the country, his slim physique just might have some Americans wondering whether he is truly like them.
The candidate has been criticized by opponents for appearing elitist or out of touch with average Americans. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in July shows Sen. Obama still lags behind Republican John McCain among white men and suburban women who say they can't relate to his background or perceived values.
"He's too new ... and he needs to put some meat on his bones," says Diana Koenig, 42, a housewife in Corpus Christi, Texas, who says she voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary.
"I won't vote for any beanpole guy," another Clinton supporter wrote last week on a Yahoo politics message board.
The last overweight president to be elected was 335-pound William Howard Taft in 1908. As for tall and lanky presidents, "you might have to go back to Abraham Lincoln" in 1860, says presidential historian Stephen Hess. "Most presidents were sort of in the middle."
Forget debates, polling, or even policy positions. Here comes the revolution where the campaigns will just release their candidates body mass index and cholesterol count, and whoever has the biggest numbers is the man or woman for the job.>
I'd initially thought that it was a sign that things were getting desperate when the McMain campaign actually starting saying that Obama shouldn't be president because he's too popular. (And when questioned about the negative campaign tactic, they actually fall back on "But he started it!")
They criticized the Democratic candidate for not visiting Iraq, but then he spent nine days abroad, visited both fronts in the U.S. war on terror, didn't make any fatal mistakes and drew 200,000 people to a speech in Berlin.
Now the Republican's campaign has a new beef against the Illinois senator -- he's way too popular, the most popular celebrity in the world, bigger even than Britney Spears or Paris Hilton.
It's a point McCain makes in a new TV advertisement.
So unpopular, fact, that the even the McCain campaign has to dance around it, and distance McCain from Bush. (Or is it a sign of success that your party's nominee can't be seen publicly with your party's sitting president? If anything, the McCain campaign would want to play this up, given their current line of attack: "See? Our guy is so unpopular that he hangs out with a hugely unpopular president. That's how unpopular he is!")
We have reporters, columnists and TV talking heads to thank for exposing these outrageous displays. So apparently the verdict is in: Sen. Barack Obama, too confident to govern.
It all would be quite funny if many people didn't seem to be inhaling this multimedia stink bomb as if it were fragrant truth.
...Fox News host Sean Hannity told viewers last week how "presumptuous" Obama had become. Proof: The candidate told congressional Democrats that the world had been waiting for his hopeful message and that to some he had become a symbol of a "return to our best traditions."
That may not be humble pie, but doesn't even come close to breaking the narcissism barrier. Don't our politicians routinely boast about how essential they are to the republic?
Then came the stunning revelation that Obama had begun planning for a transition to the White House.
...The candidate's crowning demonstrations of hubris, according to those building a case, came during his extended trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe. Recall the pundits demanding the freshman Illinois senator prove he could be presidential in the foreign arena?
So he appeared at ease with world leaders, talked animatedly with beaming American troops and drew huge civilian crowds. Then the pundits -- who had been taking a round of bashing for supposedly going easy on Obama -- told Obama he needed to beware of appearing too presidential.
Careful there, boy. You're starting to look like (a) you want the job, (b) have put some thought into how you would do it, and (c) you might even be good at it. You don't want to remind people of that kid they went to school with, who actually prepared for the test and ruined the curve for everyone else. People might start to believe that you think you're better than them.
One would think when millions of Americans campaign for and contribute to a virtually unknown commodity like Obama, it would create within the candidate a sense of awe: A humility that would overwhelm the average person, an outpouring of love and support which might bring a mere mortal to tears, a heart so filled with gratitude the candidate would thank the American people for the vote of confidence.
Not Obama - quite the opposite.
When he takes the stage, there is an air of arrogance I have never sensed from anyone else in a similar situation. There is a tone of pompousness and entitlement. One gets the sense that Obama feels he is doing his attendees a favor for allowing them in his presence. His body language screams, "I am better than you." His confidence is not quiet. His soaring rhetoric is accompanied by the dropping of the final syllable or vowel. His almost preacher-like twang is devoid of even the slightest shred of modesty.
From the WorldNetDaily response, we go to the Financial Times slightly more nuanced version of the same thing.
His greatest electoral weakness will probably not be inexperience, nor the fact that he is black. Washington's most experienced politicians have little to boast about and voters know it. Racism exists, but he came through the Wright storm stronger. The charge that sticks is vagueness. Appealing as the message of change and hope may be to a country with a low opinion of its politicians, it will not be enough. He will be challenged to make his policies - on Iraq, on Iran, on the economy and healthcare - more detailed and specific. He will need to answer, if not with exhaustive blueprints then at least with a mastery of the issues, clearer priorities and a franker recognition of the costs and benefits than he has shown so far.
Mr Obama has come an awfully long way on being an extraordinary politician. His new challenge is to be a competent ordinary one as well.
Never mind whether your policies would actually benefit them and possibly leave them better off than they are. In everything else, we may pick people who are educated and experienced enough to inspire confidence that they can actually do the job. We want them to be, y'know, competent.Not so with our leaders, apparently.
When picking a surgeon to operate on you -- would you prefer one with a college education, or one of those unlicensed doctors? Why? If you need someone to defend you in court, are you more likely going to want to have an attorney who went to law school, and actually graduated? Yes? Why?
We tend to require college education for the most valued aspects of life. Teachers, for instance. Air traffic controllers. Registered nurses. FBI agents. Nuclear physicists. CPAs. Commercial airline pilot. Veterinarians. On and on...
George Bush says he listens to the generals on the ground. Do you? Good. But you do understand that all those generals went to college. West Point tends to make that a requirement.
By the way, though we disparage them, it's a safe bet (since we elect them) that we want our politicians to have gone to college.
In other words, we do want them to be smart people, we just don't want them to show it too much. I'm not inclined to read The National Reveiw very often, but John Derbyshire came close to diagnosing the problem of the American electorate when he referenced "smartocracy."
The problem with this smartocracy is, we have this itchy feeling that it's un-American.
We Americans are easygoing about inequalities of wealth, much more so than Old World countries. There is something about inequality of smarts that just sets our teeth on edge, though. One of the first jokes ever told to me by an American was this one:
A man finds an old-fashioned oil lamp on the beach. He takes it home and starts cleaning it up. A genie pops out. Genie: "I've been in there so long my powers are weak. I can only grant you one wish, and it's a choice of two. I can either make you super-rich or super-smart. What'll it be?" Man, after a moment's though: "Y'know, I've always been bothered about being kinda slow. Always felt people were laughing at me behind my back. Well, no more of that! Make me super-smart!" Genie: "Done!" The genie vanishes. The man smacks himself on the forehead: "Jeez, I shoulda taken the money!"
Until recently there was quite a strict taboo on mentioning the idea that some people might be smarter than others. Remember what abuse The Bell Curve came in for. It seems to me that we are starting to be a little more open and truthful about these matters. Columnist Chris Satullo in the Philadelphia Inquirer back in May pointed out that the charges of "elitism" then being hurled at Barack Obama were really about smarts.
The charge of elitism isn't about people flaunting income; it's about people flaunting IQ. Americans, as a rule, don't resent people who have more money than them -- particularly if the wealth is seen as earned. Envy, maybe, but not resent. You don't resent people whom you hope to emulate. And most Americans dream easily about having much more dough than they do. What Americans more readily resent is someone who is smarter than them, who knows it, who shows it, and who seems to think being smart makes you better than everyone else. A gap in income, you can always dream of closing. A gap in IQ, not so much. It's more personal, thus easier to resent.
Labeling Democratic candidates as elitist is a tactic Republicans used to defeat both Al Gore and John Kerry. In 2000 and 2004 it proved effective because there was a kernel of truth to the accusation and the Democratic candidates did little to counter the argument. But Barack Obama does not come from a background that by any stretch of the imagination can be described as elite, whereas John McCain does - his father was an Admiral. As the campaign progresses, Americans will become more familiar with Obama's "Horatio Alger" story: the fact that he is the son of a biracial couple, abandoned by his father when he was two, raised by his white mother and grandmother, who worked his way through college and law school, and cut his teeth as a community organizer and civil-rights attorney. Furthermore, Obama's policies are not elitist - they favor America's working families - whereas McCain's policies are - they benefit the rich and powerful.
The confidence that so troubles both the WorldNetDaily and Financial Times columnists reminded me of a movie I watched a while back. I'm not sure how Born Rich -- a documentary by Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson -- ended up in my Netflix queue or what I expected to see when I popped it in my DVD player, but the impression it made came to mind months later when I overheard a colleague muse that inherited wealth must be an automatic source of confidence. I had to mention what I saw in the film. Almost to a person, the heirs to wealth beyond the dreams of most of us were anything but confident. Some were reticent talking about what it's like to be wealthy, and one even sued Johnson (unsuccessfully) after signing a release to participate in the documentary.
Their nervousness appeared to be based more than a reticence to pull back the curtain on a world of wealth that most of us can only imagine (these are people who do not have to work a single day of their lives if they don't want to, after all, because at that level their money seems to make money for them). Almost to a person, their nervousness seemed to be based in a palpable fear of being left out of "the will." They may never be sure if those around them -- outside of the small and apparently stifling social circle of the also-extremely-wealthy -- just like or value them because of their wealth, but their insecurity has another source as well. They seemed to suffer a crisis of confidence because the wealth and luxury the lived in not only wasn't theirs (not, at least, until "the will" was executed), but they'd done nothing to earn it beyond being born in to the family of someone who did, perhaps even several generations ago. (How they earned it, is another story for another time.) They can't know if they would be where they are if they'd been born to different circumstances, with only their own skills and intelligence to rely upon, and whatever more modest means their families could provide.
By contrast, Obama's confidence more likely comes from having risen to where he is now from far more humble beginnings and having done so based on his intelligence, ability, and hard work. Unlike the current president, he didn't have or didn't need the benefit of a legacy to get into an ivy league school.
If our President had the slightest sense of irony, he might have paused to ask himself, "Wait a minute. How did I get into Yale?" It wasn't because of any academic achievement: his high school record was ordinary. It wasn't because of his life experience--prosperous family, fancy prep school--which was all too familiar at Yale. It wasn't his SAT scores: 566 verbal and 640 math.
They may not have had an explicit point system at Yale in 1964, but Bush clearly got in because of affirmative action. Affirmative action for the son and grandson of alumni. Affirmative action for a member of a politically influential family. Affirmative action for a boy from a fancy prep school. These forms of affirmative action still go on.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Harvard accepts 40% of applicants who are children of alumni but only 11% of applicants generally. And this kind of affirmative action makes the student body less diverse, not more so. George W. Bush, in fact, may be the most spectacular affirmative-action success story of all time. Until 1994, when he was 48 years old and got elected Governor of Texas, his life was almost empty of accomplishments.
Yet bloodlines and connections had put him into Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School, and even finally provided him with a fortune after years of business disappointments. Intelligence, hard work and the other qualities associated with the concept of merit had almost nothing to do with Bush's life and success up to that point.
In fact, Bush was almost among the "last of the legacies," since Yale ended the practice after his class- or tried to until an alumni revolt put the kibosh on that experiment.
As the son of a prominent Texas oilman then running for the United States Senate - and the grandson of a United States senator from Connecticut who had recently served as a member of the Yale Corporation - George W. Bush was no ordinary applicant. In April 1964, he was accepted to Yale - unlike 49 percent of all alumni sons who applied that year.
Less than two years later, in an abrupt change in policy, Yale's new dean of admissions, R. Inslee Clark, presided over a radical reduction in legacy preference. By 1967, Mr. Clark's second year in office, the proportion of alumni sons in the freshman class plummeted to 12 percent from 17 percent in the class of 1968, George W. Bush's class.
The reaction of the alumni was swift and furious. By the end of 1966, the alumni were in open revolt, and Yale's alumni board hastily formed a special committee to investigate the matter. In 1967, William F. Buckley, an alumnus then running an insurgent campaign for a seat on the Yale Corporation, declared that Yale had ceased to be the "kind of place where your family goes for generations" and had been transformed into an institution where "the son of an alumnus, who goes to a private preparatory school, now has less chance of getting in than some boy from P.S. 109 somewhere."
"Some boy from P.S. 109 somewhere," indeed. Odd as it may seem, we understand privilege. We don't resent it. We accept it because we aspire to it. But actual merit? That we resent, at least in some people. (The revolt is starting up again, according to the New York Post, as wealthy New Yorkers are shocked that their little darlings aren't making the cut for the ivies now that the same schools have lowered tuition for middle class students, and competition for admissions have increased.) Contrary to what you've heard, almost no one gets into Harvard -- let alone Harvard Law School -- "just because he/she is black." And certainly no one stays at Harvard -- let alone graduates magna cum laude -- "just because he/she is black." At some point beyond admission, one simply has to be able to do the work. Still, success makes some of us suspect.
I've been thinking a lot about this sort of failure to be truly accepted as I've watched Michelle and Barack Obama recently. After all, a white couple with their accomplishments would be another one of those gilded couples that appear on the New York Times's society pages or in Town & Country magazine. Instead, these two earnest meritocrats wound up on the cover of the New Yorker last week in a now notorious fist-bumping caricature, complete with a Black Panther-era 'fro for her and traditional Muslim garb for him.
Seeing that cover made me wince -- and not because I can't take a joke. Like the Obamas and millions of other African Americans who have relied on the promise of American meritocracy, I've made a bet that hard work, study and persistence should be able to vault me past mockery and wariness. But episodes such as that cover make me worry that no amount of pedigree and personal polish will let us entirely escape suspicion, mistrust and jealousy. And I'm hardly alone in this: A New York Times/CBS News poll last week reported that 64 percent of blacks think that whites have a better chance of getting ahead in today's America. It's a painful lesson, especially for us blacks who chose majority-white universities as the means to achieving professional success.
...These questions hit particularly close to home because, like Michelle Obama, I graduated from Princeton. We're members of the fraternity known as "Black Ivy," sisters and brothers who earned our diplomas at some of the country's most elite universities, places that have educated generations of political families such as the Kennedys and the Bushes. I've gotten very different reactions, from both blacks and whites, to my Ivy League background, from the over-the-top, I'm-impressed tone of voice ("Princeton? Wow!") to barely concealed envy ("Really? How'd you manage that?").
It's a subtle reminder- know your place, no matter how educated or capable you are. None of it trumps privilege.
Obama's partner in elitism, his wife Michelle, is in extreme tongue-biting mode. This is a shame, but it is inevitable, as she too is under the kind of scrutiny that would make Cindy McCain's face melt back into some approximation of reality. It is widely understood that Obama is more deserving of close examination than McCain because she is more actively involved in her husband's campaign than Cindy is. This of course is a lie: McCain has campaigned extensively for her husband and, were it not for her family fortune and her private jet, he wouldn't even have come close to being nominated. The truth is that Obama is expected to play a certain role: strong, angry, overbearing, and every one of her statements is demeaningly parsed in that light. If every word uttered by McCain were analyzed and reported to fit the stereotype of the rich, spoilt, husband-stealing white woman that she is, all would be fair. But instead, we get adoring glances, little examination of her actual role and an occasional hiccup about Michelle Obama's lack of patriotism.
What angers John McCain and bemuses many traditional observers is how unflappable Barack Obama remains in public, no matter how condescending the attacks. There is little doubt that the thick skin he grew over decades came in handy as he started to run for president. The past 18 months surely were not the first time Obama was baited for being black, for being white, for being Muslim, or for not being from "here," and it must be fascinating, although not unexpected, for him to see these patronizing attitudes resurface at this stage of his life. For the rest of us, what is fascinating is to witness how these old-school mindsets are backfiring on those who hold them, making them look less wise, more prejudiced, less fit to lead and altogether completely unappealing. And to witness that in America in 2008, it is perhaps not a bad thing not to know your place.
He's far from the wealthiest candidate to have entered the 2008 presidential race, but what he got he earned because he was smart and capable. And he knows it. Is that what we resent- he has the audacity to let it show? We don't resent heiresses like Paris Hilton and Cindy McCain, but someone like Obama we resent? We "can't relate to his background or perceived values," but we can relate to theirs.
Maybe we don't resent that because we someday hope to be the rich and powerful, and so we vote for candidates whose policies decrease our likelihood of making ends meet, let alone getting ahead.
But they are -- or at least do a good job of appearing to be -- "competently ordinary." Thus, they seem more "like us," and less likely to make us feel worse about ourselves, whether their politics make us better off or not.
Does what we've thus far applied to intellect in political hopefuls now apply to pounds and pulse rates? I hope not. I hope we're smarter than that. Or maybe we resent being told we are smarter than that, should be smarter than that, or can be smarter than that. Maybe we resent being told we can do better, because the implication is that we should be doing better, which forces us to think about why we're not. That means thinking about what we're not doing, and why we're not doing it.
I call it the "Oprah factor." Legend has it, her popularity increases as her weight does (comedian Kathy Griffith compares it to "a hug from Jesus"), because she seems "more like us." On the other hand, her popularity goes down when she's on one of her "live your best life kicks." (Unless she punctuates it with another spectacular "giveaway" show.) Never mind that it's coming from someone who knows from experience a thing or two about improving his or her station in life, because he or she started in a place not too far from where we are.
Maybe that's what we resent.
Or do we really believe that the most fit candidate -- the one most likely to know something about the country's we have dealings with, to keep up with current events, and perhaps even take in new information and think critically about his own position, as well as being healthy enough for the stresses of the job -- is actually the least fit for office?
Just in case, maybe the Obama campaign should keep him off the basketball court, and make sure he puts on a few pounds before the debates. Just to be safe.