With the campaign season upon us, I recently found myself sitting in front of the television (what a shock) watching a popular governor deliver a speech before a town hall audience. I was very impressed with his understanding of the issues, his TV presence, and his charismatic delivery. He appeared very presidential. And then he did something I have never before seen a politician do. An angry gentleman rose to express resentment against a piece of legislation this governor had supported that negatively impacted the dairy farmers, apparently his profession. The man explained that he was a constituent, had voted for the governor twice, and demanded an explanation. The candidate for president gave the most honest answer I have ever heard. “Yep, I screwed you on that one.” He went on to explain that he had to make a choice between profits for dairy farmers and affordable milk for our nation’s children, over one-fifth of which live below the poverty line. He concluded by calmly telling the questioner, “If that angers you, I respect that. But, if you would expect something different in the future, vote for someone else.”
I almost fell out of my chair. I had never heard a politician be completely honest on a tough question and not pander for votes. The governor did not ramble on endlessly while avoiding the issue. He did not shirk his responsibility by blaming the legislature or anyone else. Instead he spoke from the heart and shared his true convictions. He may have lost that dairy farmer’s vote that evening, but I guarantee he earned many more supporters. That night, I was so very proud of Governor Josiah Bartlet from New Hampshire. I knew he would make an outstanding Chief Executive of the United States. Unfortunately, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) only governs this country on “The West Wing” each Wednesday night beginning at 8:00 p.m. central on NBC.
His first term in office has been quite eventful and full of turmoil. And yet, he and his team of political professionals handled things masterfully. He dealt with the untimely death of a Federal Reserve Chairman. He survived the confirmation of a controversial liberal Supreme Court Justice. He resolved a military conflict between India and Pakistan. He berated the President of Indonesia over human rights abuses. And he accomplished all of this despite serving with a back stabbing V.P., working with a Chief of Staff who is a recovering drug addict, and fighting MS himself. He also narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. More impressive, he only works one night a week. This is truly “reality based television” at its best. Who needs “Survivor?”
BACK TO REALITY
Flipping the channels on the television to the real life election, I have watched the “great” debates and the speeches made on the campaign trail with much interest. Frankly, these programs have represented some of the best comedies the networks have shown since Seinfeld left the air a few years back. Within the political rhetoric, I have yet to find that same honest approach to explaining positions and sharing convictions as President Bartlet expresses each week. Despite their long-winded answers (to anything but the actual questions), I can rarely even comprehend their true positions or convictions. Instead, these candidates are more interested in pandering for votes, even if it means exaggerating their personal records, misstating their opponent’s positions, and generally doing “whatever it takes” to get elected.
Hopefully the budget surplus and economic growth (current stock market notwithstanding) will last indefinitely. Both candidates have certainly spent every penny (and more) either through tax cuts and/or increased government spending (except those funds kept in a “lockbox”). Taxes and education are always high on their respective agendas. After all, who would not be in favor of receiving money back from Uncle Sam or making sure that our nation’s children are taken care of? Scare tactics work well, particularly when the elderly becomes concerned that they will not be able to pay their medical bills or have money to fund their retirements. Rather than hold open, informative dialogues where opposing plans are discussed in a civil manner, the candidates are more apt to bash, ridicule, scoff, make fun of, and generally mock each other. “Fuzzy math” confuses voters who need a calculator (that Gore invented) just to follow the discussions. Catchy slogans also go a lot farther than real answers to real questions. “Are you better off today than eight years ago?” is compared against “Let’s not squander away more missed opportunities.”
Candidates have been quick to play the “character” card to show that morality can still be found in the White House (even if youthful indiscretions and previous fundraising scandals are long forgotten). Both have expressed their strong religious convictions: One states that Jesus is the philosopher he most respects; the other counters by asking WWJD (what would Jesus do?) when making every decision. They each express true love for their wives, though one got the upper hand by turning his party acceptance speech into X-rated soft porn. (Fortunately George Sr. and Barbara never shared a similarly passionate moment on national TV.)
Both have also become quite skilled at using “human props” to make their points. What better way to discuss one’s plan to improve education than sharing a story about a child who attended class without a chair to sit on? (Who cares if a chair was found shortly thereafter?) And how else to prove one’s leadership abilities than recalling a trip to South Texas to visit hurricane victims which included a “group hug” and some encouraging words (most likely in Spanish). The candidates are definitely playing the TV circuit, though often they avoid the hard-hitting Sunday morning news programs in favor of more popular programming like Leno or Oprah. After all, if they can hold their own through that riveting dialogue, they must certainly be presidential material. (President Ed McMahan actually has a nice ring to it.)
VOTE EARLY AND OFTEN
Truth be told, most people watching these debates and other TV appearances already have their minds made up before the fact. They are merely watching to make sure that their man performs well and justifies their support. As for the “undecided’s,” they are probably off doing other things anyway. (And who could blame them?) Voter apathy has reached outrageous levels in this country, with many people believing that their votes do not make a difference. With the polls showing this year’s election in a virtual dead-heat, such folks would be best served following the campaign, learning the candidates’ positions on issues of interest to them, and exercising their responsibilities at the voting booth. If only the candidates would cooperate by offering real substance. It’s a shame Josiah Bartlet is not running this time. One day, he/she will.