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WILLIAMS: Presidential focus on style over substance
Question of the Day
Great leaders have the vision and the ability to motivate themselves and others to achieve difficult tasks.
President Obama, on the other hand, won’t stop talking, putting in more media time than any president in history, giving speech after speech and interview after interview, perhaps trying simply to wear down the American people, particularly those in swing states, into agreeing with him against their better instincts. When they do not buy what he is selling, he says he hasn’t done enough to sell it to them - quite the opposite of the problem.
With the alternatives - his Republican opponents - the media in the U.S. have predictably focused on the personality traits of the candidates - Rick Perry’s hair, Newt Gingrich’s stomach, Jon Huntsman Jr.’s daughters - rather than on their leadership abilities. The media will discuss anything other than ideas. Ideas are boring, and the American people aren’t smart enough to discuss them, they seem to think. If this is true, then the race for the highest and most important office on earth becomes a human-interest story.
In a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, Aldous Huxley predicted that the coming age of electoral politics would be increasingly focused on image, on aesthetics, on style, rather than on substance. With the advent of television and the science of psychology, marketing and public relations would progress cumulatively, as sciences do, and people would become increasingly gullible. Two years later, John F. Kennedy famously beat Richard M. Nixon to those who watched their debate on television, and lost to those listening on the radio, and Mr. Huxley was proved to be right every four years.
If personality had been so heavily weighted in selecting our great leaders of the past, America would have overlooked some of its greatest leadership and some of the greatest leadership of any country. George Washington was one of the worst public speakers in America at the time he led the American Revolution and became president; he hated to give public speeches. Thomas Jefferson gave only two speeches in his entire presidency - at his inaugurations.
Imagine, as I often do, Abraham Lincoln competing in one of the endless Republican debates of this cycle. Imagine our greatest president taking a question from CNN’s Anderson Cooper, his time divided among 10 other candidates, his answer focus-grouped, his appearance scrutinized (I often wonder if I’m watching a minor league beauty contest in these debates), and his poll numbers updated daily. He was, before his nomination for president, a congressman who had lost a run for Senate; Mr. Huntsman has a better resume.
Or, again, imagine explaining to our greatest president, as he sits by your side watching the debates, some pieces of recent history: a president receiving oral sex from an intern, that very intern going on to become a celebrity who makes a fortune in diet pill advertisements, a president who frequently goes on ESPN to talk about sports, a president who goes on comedy programs and jokes about the Special Olympics. Mr. Obama, even by modern presidential standards, puts in a jaw-dropping amount of media time. By any other standard, he is closer to a pundit than a president.
Imagine explaining to Lincoln the millions of dollars spent on presidential campaigns, or the nonstop political chatter on the Internet. Even the master of the bully pulpit, Theodore Roosevelt, would be amazed at how much of the modern presidency consists of talking to the media.
Lincoln was not a great leader because he was a great speaker, or because he was a great retail politician; he was a great leader because of his unwavering commitment to the right ideas. Let us demand a candidate not with the audacity of hope, but the courage of truth.
• Armstrong Williams, author of the 2010 book “Reawakening Virtues,” is on Sirius Power 128, 7-8 p.m. and 4-5 a.m. Mondays through Fridays. Become a fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/arightside, and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/arightside. Read his content on RightSideWire.com.
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