Would you take seriously a presidential candidate who wore a baseball cap backwards, who sported a raft of tattoos on various body parts or who used the word “like” more than once in every sentence? No, neither would I. But I am beginning to believe we’re just too old-fashioned for 21st-century politics.
Politicians, especially presidential candidates, apparently are convinced that voters are more interested in their opinions about pop culture than their plans for, say, reforming health insurance. They seem deathly afraid of being too serious—too formal, too well-dressed, too eloquent—even in this serious age. They may not be displaying pierced bellybuttons or giving speeches in a hip-hop cadence, but based on a recent presidential “debate” on CNN, it’s just a matter of time.
In an effort to appeal to young voters, who are so conspicuously absent at the polls, the Democratic Party’s would-be nominees gathered for something called a “Rock the Vote” debate several weeks ago. This sort of outreach is not a bad idea and is certainly in keeping with the best instincts of a vibrant democracy. Why not make a special effort to appeal to an alienated or apathetic voting bloc?
Unfortunately, the CNN session was yet another example of today’s media-driven dumbing down of American culture. You’d think a presidential debate designed for young people would include a serious discussion of the economy and the war on terror—issues that particularly affect the young. While these topics were not absent from the CNN proceedings, the candidates also were subjected to an inquisition about picking up women in bars (I wish I were making this up), the outcome of the American League baseball playoffs and other matters ordinarily reserved to the hard-hitting reporters of the E! television network. And, of course, the candidates were asked if they had smoked marijuana. Those who did won warm applause. Poor Joseph Lieberman! He nearly apologized as he confessed that he has yet to indulge in this law-breaking recreational habit. The young audience dismissed him as clueless—what could Joe Lieberman possibly know about their concerns if he hasn’t tried pot? Well, at least when the discussion moved to picking up women in bars, he admitted that he, like, had a soft spot in his heart for a young female in the audience. Like, way cool, dude.
The candidates allowed themselves to be embarrassed because, after all, had they shown proper disdain for these vapid inquiries, they would be labeled as—yes!—elitists. Woe betide the candidate whose taste in music or sense of propriety can be dismissed as elitist! Once condemned as an elitist, today’s politician can expect no redemption, at least not on this earth.
It is hard to know who came off worst in CNN’s simple-minded exercise: the candidates, who tried so desperately to seem totally hip; the young voters, many of whom seemed proudly superficial; or the host, Anderson Cooper, who clearly will never be mistaken for fuddy-duddy types like Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor or Dan Rather.
Many of the questions might have been appropriate if the panel had been made up of the usual vacuous celebrities who populate American television studios every night. But these panelists were not celebrities; they were politicians, and, yes, I believe there is a difference. The purveyors of postmodern irony may disagree—fame is fame, however achieved—but most of us do not look to celebrities for protection from international terrorists or from the worst excesses of capitalism. For that, we look to political leaders.
There is nothing wrong with politicians emphasizing their common touch, even when it seems a little jarring. Presidential candidates before the Civil War advertised their log-cabin roots in the same way that today’s politicians tell stories about the lowly jobs they or their parents once held. When Franklin D. Roosevelt, of the Hudson Valley Roosevelts, played host to King George VI and Queen Mary of Great Britain, he fed them hot dogs. George H. W. Bush professed his taste for pork rinds during the 1988 campaign. Bill Cinton, of course, reminded us that he was the man from Hope.
Politicians have to connect with voters, and voters want to take the measure of their would-be leaders. It’s one thing, however, to drop your g’s (as every presidential candidate seems to do these days, especially those with Ivy League degrees) or talk about your hard-working parents. It’s quite another to treat presidential politics as just another part of celebrity culture. A magazine editor was quoted recently praising the Democrats for their brilliant answers to a pressing question: Who is their favorite Beatle?
If we are going to quiz our leaders to see if they understand us—and why not?—we surely can do better than ask about sitcoms, pop music, movies and celebrities. I’d like to know if any of the candidates know somebody who was thrown out of work in the last four years. (And let’s have specifics, please. No unverifiable anecdotes, which are a politician’s best friend.) Do they know any parent with a child serving in Iraq? Do they know any senior citizens who cannot afford prescription drugs? Do they know anybody who does not have health insurance? Have they themselves ever stood in line to receive unemployment benefits or a welfare check? Have they ever met a Catholic-school parent who struggles to pay tuition because the local public school is dysfunctional?
These are, alas, serious questions, which means there is a good chance nobody will ask them. Not on television, anyway.