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