Charisma goes farther than brains

Elton Wong

I’ve been hearing pundits talk about a general anti-intellectual sentiment among the Americans for a long time. I’ve grudgingly agreed, even though I don’t have a basis for comparison. I have never been part of a pro-intellectual society.

Watching the presidential debates Tuesday reminded me of this quirk. The first question given the candidates concerned the patients’ bill of rights. Bush spoke first, and he outlined his Texas record.

Mediator Jim Lehrer asked Gore if he and the governor were in agreement. Gore then did something important. He brought up the Dingell-Norwood Bill, a bipartisan bill pending in congress. The Dingell-Norwood Bill stands in contrast to the one put forth by the Republican majority in congress, which is also the bill supported by HMOs and insurance companies. Gore attacked the Republican majority bill saying:

“[HMOs and insurance companies] like it because it doesn’t accomplish what I think really needs to be accomplished – to give the decisions back to the doctors and nurses and to give a right of appeal to somebody other than the HMO or insurance company, let you go to the nearest emergency room without having to call an HMO before you call 911, to let you see a specialist if you need to. And it has strong bipartisan support. It is being blocked by the Republican leadership in the Congress.”

Gore then asked Bush point-blank whether or not he supports the Dingell-Norwood Bill. The mediator asked Bush what the differences between him and Gore were.

Bush replied, “The difference is that I can get it done.” The audience laughed. Bush continued: ” . I can get something positive done on behalf of the people. That’s what the question in this campaign is about. It’s not only what your philosophy and what your position on issues, but can you get things done.” This statement also elicited supportive laughter from the crowd.

This in no way constitutes a response. This is a dodge from a man who brags a great deal about his ability to set aside partisan differences and accomplish things. Why didn’t he just state his position? Is he for the bipartisan patient bill of rights bill, or does he join the republican majority in attacking it?

Maybe he wouldn’t have gotten a positive response if he had stated his position. When I see the audience reacting so well to such a banal, empty statement, I can’t help but lose faith in the democratic process. The audience was saying, “Don’t talk to us about policies and stances. Give us empty, folksy-sounding generalities, and we’ll eat it up.”

Lest I be accused of unfairness in my portrayal, let’s move on to another example. When asked about affirmative action, Bush said he was against it, favoring instead “affirmative access,” embodied in a Texas program allowing anyone in the top 10 percent of their graduating high school class to attend state college. Bush said he was against quotas.

Gore pointed out that quotas are illegal anyway, and that “affirmative access” was nothing but a red herring. He asked if Bush supported actual Constitutional affirmative action as defined by the Supreme Court. Bush responded “If affirmative action means quotas, I’m against it. If affirmative action means what I just described, what I’m for, then I’m for it. You heard what I was for.”

Bush failed to provide more information when pressed.

This is not a response either, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. Some commentators even gave Bush points after the debate for his conversational manner and confident voice. Never mind that he wasn’t informed enough to answer point-blank questions about his policies.

One thing Bush talks about is “leadership,” a quality he claims to possess. This word is used often but rarely defined. Apparently, being a good leader doesn’t require much knowledge of what you believe. Maybe leadership has more to do with charisma, which Bush possesses more than Gore, we all can admit.

You might think that this makes Bush less qualified than Gore to lead our nation. I’ve come to the conclusion that being a policy expert and knowing what’s going on isn’t that important for a leader. The president would do just fine deferring to his cabinet in most circumstances, assuming those people know what’s happening.

Those circumstances where the president takes center stage often occur on the international scene. When you’re dealing with international diplomats, personal charm may actually be more important than intelligence or knowledge.

Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar and related very well with people, but I bet the latter got him farther as the chief executive officer. Jimmy Carter was a sharp guy but was not a very good president.

The moral of the story may well be this: Presidents are more like actors than people who actually get things done. Do you think either of the candidates (especially Bush) developed all of his platforms by himself, without a huge staff of aides, speechwriters and consultants? The guy standing in front of all that is just a prop for public consumption. Policy and philosophy aside, I think we can all agree that George Bush would make a better one of those that Al Gore.