by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - January 28, 2008) Whatever policies a political candidate may make, whatever his priorities appear to be both in speeches and in commercials, the ultimate judgment on him or her relates almost entirely to character. The electorate are fully aware that politicians running for office simply cannot be trusted. They will promise the moon or, if that is too far-fetched, attractive portions of a nearby galaxy. But throughout their obstreperous electioneering, the citizenry is more tuned into the traits emanating from their character than they are their platforms.
The pollsters dutifully report what those being polled report to them, but we know that there are many ways of answering questions and the most common is evasion. When asked to answer simply Yes or No, the ambiguities of thought and feeling that constitute an opinion takes the easy way out. "Yes" always means "Yes, but..." and "No" is always accompanied by the silent rider ".....on the other hand."
But character, which is perhaps the paramount factor for someone running for public office, is experienced by virtually everyone, yet almost never openly acknowledged. We have adjectives to describe the personalities of politicians, but the real consensus remains tucked away in sub-text; felt deeply but almost never expressed.
Take the present lot of presidential candidates and, for a moment, put aside the policies they espouse and instead try to define the unarticulated assessment that is silently being made about them. This is, of course, an exercise in subjectivity because people, being different, will obviously make different kinds of assessments, but there is always a majority opinion and it is that which invariably conditions the choices voters make, even though they often find it difficult to articulate the reasons for choosing as they do. I am talking about the cluster of pros and cons that swim into one's head as citizens step inside the voting booth -- the exceptions being the paid hirelings of one party or another who have already made up their minds or, because of certain emoluments, have had it made up for them.
HILLARY CLINTON: The desire for power which surges uncontrollably in the bosom of this candidate is perhaps her most polarizing trait. We feel -- intuitively -- that someone so enthralled with "being in charge" may be misplacing her fervency; that if that fervency were truly applied to the issues about which she speaks so intensely, it might be better for the country. Also, there appears to be a disconnect between her cachinnating affability and the scheming nature of the woman who turns it on. It causes a certain detachment -- like pulling away from a used-car salesman who is too genial and just a touch over-earnest.
MITT ROMNEY seems to be self-conscious of his wealth. His superior social position, rather than being a strength, is something that he would have voters ignore. He is constantly telling us that despite his millions and his privileged upbringing, he is as egalitarian as Abe Lincoln and as progressive as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In wanting to be Everyman, he somehow loses identity altogether. His greatest obstacle would appear to be convincing the electorate that he is the sum total of his promises and not the scion of a capitalist dynasty pretending to be the boy-next-door.
JOHN EDWARDS, by energetically hammering at his working-class roots, would obliterate the fact that as a trial lawyer he is already part of an elitist establishment that feeds on working-class men and women, even as he foists himself as a champion of their causes. His routinely repeated earnestness is as off-putting to many as Bill Clinton's casual barbs against his wife's most threatening competitor. In both cases, one feels the façade only illuminates a certain hungry egoism that is being laboriously whitewashed.
MIKE HUCKABEE'S mask is that of the populist; the Average Man writ large, but his bondage to the Almighty and his desire to sanctify the Constitution (i.e., restore God to the throne from which legislative skeptics have wisely removed Him) immediately inspires dread. In the lively tradition of Huey Long and Father Coughlin, we shrink from this guitar-strumming "good ole boy" and feel that, although having "the common touch" is a virtue, being "commonplace" is a character trait we dare not associate with the Highest Office in the Land.
RUDY GIULIANI has a strong whiff of Machiavelli about him. His glibness cannot conceal the treachery that oozes from that smarmy persona. We know too much about his trickeries and his treacheries not to suspect the bold façade of the 9/11 gladiator. Only someone desperately trying to conceal rampant malevolence could be so emphatic about his leadership credentials. We suspect, but cannot prove, that he is the sort of man who beats his wife and then camouflages the bruises with makeup.
JOHN McCAIN was forged in the military; an outlook that sees all crises in terms of victory or defeat -- the epitome of a "siege mentality." A man so prone to sudden anger that he has wrapped himself within a protective placidity, but one who extols dubious virtues such as allegiance, steadfastness, and patriotism -- which is to say, wary of disorder, speculation, or civil disobedience. A man who, in a curious way, is a member of the wrong political party but too long entrenched to consider defection, and also a man who believes a longstanding congressional background brings with it certain entitlements. It is the tortured prisoner-of-war in McCain that finds succor in "the surge"; the battle-scarred militarist who believes there must always be a Them and an Us.
BARACK OBAMA'S greatest asset is his naïveté. He seems to believe that by tackling the gigantic reforms needed to remedy a crippled democracy, he can displace the political bulwarks that have been in place in America for over three centuries. His high degree of literacy is a little frightening to other "intellectuals" who maintain the belief that a Thinking Man should not be placed in a position where he has to morph into A Man of Action. Although he inspires both faith and enthusiasm, he also induces dread. Dread that he will not be able to keep his head above water, which is filled with gnarly and indiscriminating sharks whose teeth are still sharp.
It is in many ways, a motley crew -- but an inevitable roster trumped up by a flawed democracy that, from one election after another, has grown accustomed to settling for less.
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