State of the Campaign #2: Biography

Sunday’s Washington Post had a frightening article about just how ill-informed most American voters are. It makes for some sad reading to realize how in this "information age" more people know the goings-on in Paris Hilton’s romantic life than can find Iraq on a map. But, the article misunderstood what voters do when they vote for President: They are not electing a slate of policies, they are electing a person. And, on that score, the decision of the voters may not pass muster before the bar of history (Richard Nixon won twice!) but the choices they make are defensible at the time.

To take a recent historical example, Al Gore and George W. Bush had wildly different personalities. Al Gore was clearly the more intelligent of the two, and you had the feeling he liked being acknowledged as the smartest guy in the room. George W. Bush knew he was not the brightest bulb on the planet, but he connected with people, he had an emotional intelligence that Gore lacked. Who is to say which is more important in serving as President, a highly tuned emotional intelligence or book-smarts? Being able to "read" a foreign leader during negotiations may be as important as digesting a briefing book of information and effective back-slapping may help get legislation through Congress in a way that refined arguments cannot achieve.


This year, John McCain starts at a huge advantage on the biography test because he is, quite simply, a hero. He endured unimaginable suffering as a POW in Vietnam, declined the offer to be released ahead of those who had been captured earlier, and lived to tell the tale, a tale that brings tears to the eyes of all but the most jaded of listeners. And, while there are many ways of serving one’s country, military service has always been considered uniquely beneficial to a political career. Presidents Washington, Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Grant, Garfield, Hayes, and Eisenhower were all generals before they were presidents.

McCain’s personal life is complicated. (Whose isn’t?) When asked at the Saddleback Church forum what was his greatest moral lapse, McCain pointed without hesitation to the failure of his first marriage. But, the more indelible personal image is of McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter being carried out one of Mother Teresa’s orphanages by McCain’s wife Cindy. First, that image connects with Catholic voters for whom Mother Teresa is, with the late Pope John Paul II, the most revered of figures. Second, for those with good memories, McCain paid a political price for the adoption of his daughter: In 2000, during the South Carolina primaries, George W. Bush ran a "push poll" in which voters were asked if they knew John McCain had a black child out of wedlock. McCain, therefore, was the victim of the kind of scorched-earth politics voters say they want to end.

Barack Obama suffers on the biography score for two reasons, both having to do with the rapidity of his ascent. First, people just do not know him. He has not been around long enough to create a public persona that voters can assess so he is still chasing false rumors such as the charge that he is really a Muslim. This means that even a slip of the tongue, which another more seasoned politician could dismiss with a quick correction, has the potential to divert him from his campaign theme for hours and even days. This happened to Obama last Sunday when he mistakenly referred to "my Muslim faith" when answering a question about the internet smears questioning his Christianity.

The second problem with Obama’s biography is more complicated. You don’t rise so far, so fast unless your early academic credentials helped propel you. If Barack Obama had not gone to Harvard Law and been the president of the Law Review while there, it is doubtful he would be where he is today. But, being head of the Harvard Law Review is precisely the kind of credential that labels you as an elitist, and that label is the kiss of electoral death in large swaths of the American electorate. Not sure why it is so. After all, we all want a doctor or a lawyer who went to the best schools and succeeded there: Doctors do not put their diplomas on the wall because of their artistic merit.

If the Democrats and Obama have an advantage on the message score, John McCain has game, set and match on the biography score. His is familiar, heroic and characteristic of those qualities Americans value in a leader. Obama is an unknown. He might have the personal attributes to be a great president: Lincoln, another less well known, non-military candidate for the presidency from Illinois, did pretty well. But, in terms of winning, the biography round goes to McCain.


This column first appeared at America’s new special election blog, which you can reach by clicking on the link to the right or by clicking here .

Michael Sean Winters


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10 years 4 months ago
"But, the article misunderstood what voters do when they vote for President: They are not electing a slate of policies, they are electing a person." True, and also horrible. With that and you remark that "more people know the goings-on in Paris Hilton’s romantic life than can find Iraq on a map" you (perhaps unintentionally) pointed out the increasingly superficial nature of American culture. God only knows how many millions of the people who voted for Bush did so because he seemed like the kind of guy they'd like to have over for a barbecue. Personally, I'd happily vote for a short, chubby, pasty skinned man with a speech impediment (who also happens to be an unmarried atheist), if he would get us out of Iraq, balance the budget, nationalize health care and the oil industry, etc. What is it Billary used to say? "Let's get serious"? Yes, let's.
10 years 4 months ago
Well, I don't know how the average American views McCain, but my slow view (and I don't pay all that much attention to politics or politicians) is that he is a rather nasty, cussing and cursing type guy (from news stories of him in the Senate) who suddenly looks happy and president-like and a nice guy. From the past I recall him war-mongering and standing with fists raised with General Franks and calling for more war with Iraq. This after the US had spent 10 years bombing Iraq and blockading the country and causing the deaths of many thousands of children. Far from being a hero I viewed his POW status as hardly just punishment for dropping bombs on children and villages in Vietnam - something he cavalierly did without pangs of conscience and without remorse to this day. Maybe if your concept of the US Military Service is like that of what was expected of the Roman Legions - men following orders without conscience - then he could be considered more than a war criminal, but remember, Christians were martyrs for NOT serving in the legions! As far as your remarks on Nixon - he was a foreign affairs expert compared to McCain- even if he too was willing to break US and international laws.
10 years 4 months ago
I would like to expand the discussion about emotional intelligence. One aspect of EI is the ability to generate emotions in others. Obama is a gifted orator. His speeches have moved people emotionally to become deeply involved in his election. Many of these people have had little interest before. McCain is more average in oratory ability but his compelling biography has moved people to consider him. Biden, in his candidacy for President demonstrated very limited ability to get people excited. On the other hand his son Beau demonstrated this ability to move people in the introductory speech about his Dad. The person who did the most to emotionally move people most likely to vote is Sarah Palin. Her speech energized the Republican base & she also made an emotional connection with women who try and balance work and home, families with special needs, fiscal conservatives who believe in reform, & people who believe in accountability. After her Convention speech I was amazed at the impact on newscasters on CNN and NPR, particularly women, who seemed for the first time to view the McCain candidacy in a different, more positive light. In 2000 I believe Al Gore's inability to connect on an emotional level with people cost him the election. The curious thing about Gore is that he seemed far more able to connect emotionally after the election, when he stopped trying so hard. Obama appeared to have emotional momentum going his way until John McCain took a risk and selected a true Government reformer, Sarah Palin, and co-opted the message of change. Clearly the ability to move people emotionally matters in politics, especially elections. For more information about emotional intelligence you can view my website at


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