Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but in the past few days I feel I’ve been overwhelmed by a tsunami of commentary, all of which purports to prove the fundamental nastiness of Barack Obama or, alternatively, the deep unlikability of John McCain. You thought our presidential candidates were nice guys, regular guys, guys who you’d like to sit down and have a beer with? Guess what, lots of people are now telling me: They aren’t!
Thus David Brooks of the New York Times has contrasted the warm-and-fuzzy Obama on our television screens with “Fast Eddie Obama, the promise-breaking, tough-minded Chicago pol who’d throw you under the truck for votes.” The Daily Mail of London has called McCain a “self-centered womaniser who effectively abandoned his [first] crippled wife.” In recent months I’ve also read, or been told, that John McCain snubbed the Vietnamese peasant who saved his life and is rude to his (second) wife in public; that Obama abandoned his beloved church to save his political skin and for similar reasons had some nasty friends in Chicago; that both candidates “flip-flop” on the issues nearest and dearest to them, merely in order to win votes.
From whatever political quarter it comes, and regardless of whatever merit it may have, all of this commentary starts with the same assumption: The reader is meant to be shocked, shocked, that these two men—men who have submitted themselves to months of brutal campaigning, men who have thrown their wives and families to the wolves, men who know they might at any second need to abandon their closest friends—these two men are not, in fact, very nice people at all!
But why on earth should anyone expect them to be? In its wisdom, America has devised a presidential election system that actively selects for egotistical megalomaniacs: You simply cannot enter the White House if you aren’t one. You might start out as an idealist, of course, and I would even give both Obama and McCain the benefit of the doubt here. I’m sure both are patriots, both care about America, both want to make the world a better place.
But in order to become the candidate, both also had to make a series of utterly ruthless decisions, decisions that most nice guys would find unpalatable. I don’t care what a helpful father Michelle says he is, there is absolutely no sense in which Obama’s presidential campaign—or, should it come to it, Obama’s presidency—is good for Obama’s children. Neither is there a scenario under which Cindy McCain, who always looks profoundly uncomfortable in the limelight, is ever going to relax and enjoy her husband’s golden retirement years. Anyone who was ever closely associated with either candidate is now at risk of unpleasant media exposure. No one who works for them right now has job security, and no one who knows them can expect any favors.
Think hard, as well, about what a presidential campaign truly demands of a candidate. To become president, you must love talking about yourself: Talk, talk, brag and talk, every day, every evening, on national television, in the company of newspaper reporters, in every spare moment, and not just for a few days or weeks but for years and years on end. If you don’t crave attention; if you don’t long for adulation; if you don’t, at some level, feel you are God’s gift to the American people, then you don’t run for president at all.
And yet despite the existence of this extraordinarily harsh, ruthless presidential selection system, Americans, possibly uniquely among democratic nations, do at some level expect their leaders to be nice. I’m convinced George W. Bush became president in part because he seemed nice—refreshingly inarticulate, just like the rest of us—even though his former associates often admit that he isn’t nice at all. It was once said of Ronald Reagan that his career proved the limitations of charm: If you turn it on for the public, you don’t have much left over in private. Still, the desire to be represented by a nice person penetrates quite deep into the American psyche. We “like Ike,” and we like Jimmy and Bill, and we want our country to be run by the sort of person we can call by a nickname.
Neither of our current presidential candidates seems much inclined to nicknames, which is just as well, really. Perhaps a touch of formality will help us remember that, whatever their many good qualities, both are self-centered, driven, ambitious, calculating, manipulative politicians—because they have to be. That’s what it takes to be president of the United States, and we might as well get used to it now.