On the one hand, it is almost too easy to disparage the trivial nature of the issues in this Presidential campaign, the issues that rise to the top of the national media’s attention. Did John McCain question Obama’s patriotism? Why won’t Obama admit he was wrong about the surge? Does it help Obama or hurt him to announce his world citizenship, and apologize for America’s shortcomings, to 200,000 Germans? Does McCain really think that Pakistan and Iraq share a border? Is Obama really a sincere Christian? Is McCain? Is Obama arrogant? Is McCain old? Does a bear sh*t in the woods?
On the other hand, when people are sussing out a new neighbor, or a fellow worker, or their boss, or a lover, these are the kinds of questions for which they seek answers. Rightfully so. The issues are irrelevant. They will not be the same issues by the time the new President takes office. What matters is who that guy really is that we just put in the White House. We won’t really know the answer to that question until it happens, but it’s important to evaluate it the best we can.
There have been many instances of men who seemed flawed or mediocre, who have risen to the occasion of becoming President. As a rule, we don’t find out whether or not a President was great until at least a couple of decades after his death, sometimes longer. Herbert Hoover will be restored, one of these days, to his rightful place somewhere above his current position. Me and three or four other people think that George W. Bush will also rise in the ranks as time goes by.
Obsessive as I am about the issues; Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, health care, energy, taxes, regulation, the value of the dollar, I have to admit, this is not what really matters. It’s my hobby, the hobby of those without better things to do. Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, Bush, none of these men had any idea what they would face, or what they would do about it, before they became President. Well, maybe Ronald Reagan knew, but he had a limited imagination, thank God. When asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, Harold Macmillan replied, “Events, my dear boy, events”. This is more true today than ever.
Whatever the upcoming events turn out to be, it is a safe bet that they will be hair-raising. The real audacity of hope is the audacity of the hope that the President turns out to be someone who will keep it together and make the right call when events inevitably overtake him (or her). Most of the time Presidents do OK, but sometimes they don’t, and the stakes keep getting higher. McCain looks like the best bet to me, or at least the safest bet, for obvious reasons, but nobody really knows what either John McCain or Barack Obama will do when events hit the fan.
This is the judgment that American voters are always called upon to make, and it doesn’t matter much how informed they are about the issues. What matters is how good a judge of character they are. Political ideology and issue wonkery tend to obscure one’s ability to judge character, rather than enhance it. I have much more faith in the American people’s capacity to assess what a man or woman is made of, than I have in the depth of their knowledge and understanding of the issues of the day. Fortunately, that is exactly what is needed.