Defending Presidential Elitism October 9, 2008Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
Tags: America, Bush, Candidates, Debate, Education, Election 2008, Elections, Elite, Elitism, Joe Six-Pack, McCain, Obama, Palin, Politics, President, Secretary of the Treasury, Vice President
It’s debate season, folks, and my oh my has it been underwhelming. Many have complained that the debates have lacked substance; the candidates aren’t answering the questions. Personally, I am disappointed that the debates have lacked entertainment. No gaffes, no real arguments, few jokes or memorable lines…do they really expect us to stay focused through two hours of interlocking stump speeches? But every once in a while, the moderator asks a question for which a canned response is not prepared. The candidates deftly pivot away from most of these situations (some more overtly than others), but you can still learn from their answers if you’re paying attention.
On Tuesday night, Tom Brokaw asked the presidential hopefuls (makes the race seem predestined, doesn’t it?) whom they would pick to be Secretary of the Treasury. Senator John McCain seemed annoyed to be knocked off script, retorting with a grumpy “Not you, Tom” while he scrambled for an answer. Still fumbling, McCain stalled by laying out his qualifications for a good treasury secretary: “I think the first criteria, Tom, would have to be somebody who immediately Americans identify with (video).” Really? That’s your first priority in selecting the person to navigate our country through an economic crisis of this (or any) magnitude? John – can I call you John? – I don’t want to be able to identify with the Secretary of the Treasury. On any level. This person should be so far out of my league I can’t even hold an intelligible conversation with him. I don’t understand the economy. Sure, I took my macro- and microeconomics. I even turned some decent grades. But does my winning personality qualify me to rescue our financial systems? Hell no. Pick someone who has the skill set and experience to get us out of this mess!
My friends, that Senator McCain would fall back on this line (and put it in practice with his vice presidential nomination) is symptomatic of a real problem in our country today. Why do we so desperately want to elect leaders with whom we can identify? The fact that I didn’t end the previous sentence with the preposition basically disqualifies me from running for office. Senator Barack Obama is an academically accomplished man. After graduating from Columbia University he went on to earn a law degree from Harvard. He was even the president of the Harvard Law Review – I don’t know how to put this, but that’s kind of a big deal. After that he became a law professor at the University of Chicago. You may have known this, but you certainly didn’t hear it from Barack.
Today’s candidates have to hide their education. For those who finished in the bottom 5 of their class, that’s convenient (or would be if underachievement wasn’t so mavericky). Yet McCain and his voluptuous veep didn’t start this trend – there’s no way you can have this discussion and not arrive at our current president. Even George W. Bush, who actually looks good on paper with his degrees from Yale and Harvard, didn’t point to his past to placate concerns about…“mental preparedness.” Why? Because his average guy persona appealed to voters (and he only got C’s). If a candidate flaunts his education today, he is labeled “elitist.”
Elitism is a strange charge to level against presidential candidates. At the risk of quoting Jon Stewart too much: “Doesn’t ‘elite’ mean good?…I want someone who’s embarrassingly superior to me.” (Video– the entire segment is great, but the elitism bit starts at 6:50). On a tangentially related but similarly awesome note, I present the following question courtesy of Kathleen Reardon at the Huffington Post: “Is it sexist to want the person flying the plane to be a pilot?” Back on track, though, presidential candidates are running to be the most powerful person in the world. Being President of the United States is like being the CEO of a global superpower (this may not be true by the time you read this, but that’s another story). Can you imagine someone hiding her educational credentials while applying to lead a Fortune-500 company? No. And she wouldn’t even get a moment’s consideration without them, even if you’d want to have a beer with her. So why are we so comfortable electing “normal” people president?
The average American is not qualified to lead the country. This should not be debatable (although with enough preparation, one could childishly pivot to talk about job creation instead). Nor is it contrary to the American Dream. There are plenty of successful people who don’t live in the White House and unsuccessful ones who do. Being able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps does not mean that anyone can be president, regardless of what your mother may have told you. I wanted to be a lion. Life’s not fair.
Compare Bush (or Sarah Palin) to the early presidents in our nation’s history. Picture them having a conversation. It hurts. I doubt Thomas Jefferson would think highly of our recent selections. Now I’m not saying that the founding fathers got everything right – for example, I imagine they might be surprised to learn that a black man is now running for more than 3/5 of the presidency. But they understood the value of a meritocracy. Or at least that it takes more than an ordinary person to succeed in a decidedly extraordinary position.
Let Average Joe enjoy his 6-pack. I’ll drink with him (although the case is my weapon of choice). Our president should wash down his arugula with a glass of fine wine.