Politicians: Caricatures under the Microscope

When discussing politics I am frequently told that George W. Bush is dumb. I readily concede that he was probably our dumbest president ever (or at least tied with Warren Harding). But that doesn’t mean that he is actually stupid.

As we watch a bunch of presidential hopefuls stumble through primaries and caucuses it worth considering the bizarre microscope under which politicians are forced to function.

It is said that the camera adds ten pounds (I think I heard it in an episode of Friends.) The American political process, which has a lot of cameras and lot of other people, also on camera, talking about it presses a person flat against the glass and gives us a strange distorted image of that individual in which perhaps one quality will be grotesquely prominent.

This is not an original thought, I got it from that leading sociologist and observer of the American scene Dave Barry in Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway. Barry described the two major party candidates for president in 2000:

Al Gore… who had developed this annoying, condescending manner of speech that made him sound, when he spoke to us, as though he were addressing a herd of unusually stupid sheep….

George W. Bush… who often sounded as though he had the brain of a sheep….

Here’s the thing: I have actually spent time in social settings with both Al Gore and George W. Bush. I’m not saying I got to know them well, but I will say that Gore seemed more natural in person and Bush seemed smarter. They were nothing like the two over programmed androids I saw debating each other on TV, both of them desperately trying to get all their memorized sound bites in.

Similarly, a knowledgeable acquaintance, as we were discussing my dissertation, observed that despite being gaffe-prone, Biden seems to have won the President’s confidence. Biden is the perfect example of the strange distorted view we have of politicians. This CNN video is a short compilation of Biden’s greatest hits including misspeaking and falling asleep in public during speeches.

But here is the thing, imagine if a camera were following one of us around all the time. Biden’s job involves an enormous amount of talking. Considering how much he has to speak, it is amazing he doesn’t make many, many more times the gaffes he makes. Sort of like being the worst hitter in the major leagues – Biden may be more gaffe prone then most politicians – but very few of us would be capable of doing better. (Falling asleep during boring speeches and meetings seems hardly noteworthy – especially since we see West Point cadets with heavy eyelids as President Obama speaks to them.)

That is not to say that our process is necessarily bad. Sometimes that caricature we see in place of the person reveals a truth.

Anyway, it isn’t clear that the bizarre selection process gives us the best person to president. But if a candidate can’t get through the process – they probably have no business in the White House. Running for president requires personally performing at a very high level, thinking strategically, and organizing nationally – all at the same time. Someone who can do all of that might be able to cut it in the Oval Office.

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