Wissot: Dull decency never looked more presidential than now (column)
The recent death of George H.W. Bush reminded me of how the qualities we look for in electing our presidents have changed over the years.
It’s not like having charisma is a new phenomenon in presidential politics. Teddy Roosevelt had it. So did FDR long before the age of television and social media.
A turning point may have been the famous Nixon-Kennedy televised debates in 1960 when for the first time the voting public was influenced by the glamour of a telegenic candidate.
Poor Richard Nixon and his perspiration ridden face never stood a chance against the sex appeal of JFK.
The importance of charisma in being elected president is greater now than it was 40 years ago. It began with Ronald Reagan, dubbed the “ Great Communicator,” and was critical in the election of presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and, of course, the current occupant of the White House.
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George W. Bush wasn’t particularly charismatic compared to the president who preceded him and the two presidents who followed him.
He was, however, more charismatic than his father which brings me to the point of this column.
Bush 41 was the next to the last living representative (Jimmy Carter the other) of the acclaimed Greatest Generation to hold the presidency.
He was a throwback to a time when character counted for more than charisma in politics; when decency mattered more than dazzle; when honesty, truthfulness, humility, empathy was what we wanted from our presidents.
Bush senior reminded us of another president who wasn’t particularly charismatic: Dwight David Eisenhower. Both men were decent and dull.
Dull decency might be a welcome antidote to the cult of charismatic personality, which has seduced the electorate in recent presidential politics.
In so doing, we would be returning to a time when the capacity to amuse was not what we looked for first in electing our presidents. Commander in Chief — Yes. Entertainer in Chief — No.
George H.W. Bush was not a gifted campaigner. Other than a House seat early in his career, the only political office he ever won was the presidency. And he accomplished that while serving as vice president.
But what are we looking for in a president: a man or woman who can win elections or a person who can govern with competence, confidence and compassion?
If what we want is a great campaigner, then we need look no further than our president now.
I leave it to you to decide how well that has succeeded.
Bush 41 was not a particularly inspiring orator like Obama. He famously said of himself, “Fluency in English is not something I’m often accused of.” It didn’t matter. He let his actions do his talking for him.
Actions such as overseeing the end of the Cold War and the implosion of our long rival, the Soviet Union, without a drop of blood being spilt. Decisions on his part which led to the end of the Gulf War in 41 days with 148 American soldiers being killed, the only clear cut military victory this country has accomplished since the end of World War II. (“Coalition Deaths Fewer Than In 1991, “Patrick Cooper, CNN, June 25, 2003.)
I think the disabled in this country are happy that a phlegmatic president signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act in July of 1990, providing legal protections for a much neglected minority. Ditto for the rest of us who still benefit from his signing amendments strengthening the 1970s era Clean Air Act. (“George H.W. Bush Accomplished Much More As President Than He Ever Got Credit For,” Michael Duffy, Time Magazine, Dec. 1, 2018.)
In his brief 20-minute inaugural address, the elder Bush said, “The American public did not send us here to bicker.” (“Time Magazine, Dec. 1, 2018.)
Dull decency never looked more glamorous.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.