Let's reject candidate caricatures and focus on what matters

June 04, 2008|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

No presidential campaign season is complete until the media create, and voters adopt, convenient caricatures for the candidates that reduce the presidential nominees to simplified and typically distorted versions of their true selves.

To see how insidiously easy this process is, notice how a few controversial personal relationships, certain aspects of his identity, and statements he or his wife made have been selectively combined to depict Sen. Barack Obama as an unpatriotic, religiously suspect and culturally arrogant appeaser of global bullies.

Stipulating that Mr. Obama had some personal connection to former Weather Underground radical William Ayres and a deeper and more developed relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., that he pledges to meet with some of America's enemies abroad and, yes, that he doesn't wear an American flag pin on his lapel every day, is the above depiction of Mr. Obama legitimate or even meaningful?

Before answering that question, let's pause a moment to consider how easy it would be to dismantle Sen. John McCain's war hero image and replace it with an entirely different portrait of him by pasting together choice bits about the former Vietnam prisoner of war.

Mr. McCain finished sixth from the bottom of his U.S. Naval Academy class of about 900 midshipmen, and divorced his first wife to marry a wealthy heiress with whom he now owns seven residences. His early congressional career was marred by a banking scandal; more recently, he had a physical confrontation with Rep. Rick Renzi, a fellow Arizona Republican, whom he taunted repeatedly by calling him "boy."

During this presidential season, Mr. McCain sought and then rejected the endorsement of a radical pastor who suggested Adolf Hitler was empowered by God to destroy the Jews. He has also cozied up to two other evangelical leaders he previously called "agents of intolerance."

Oh, and Mr. McCain almost never wears a flag pin on his lapel, either.

Cobbling it all together, the emergent caricature is that of a flunky, flinty, unpatriotic, gold-digging political opportunist with dubious family values - right?

Enough of this already. Aren't we, the citizens of the world's lone superpower and supposed example-setter for aspiring democracies, entitled to and capable of a more dignified style of politics? Sometimes I wonder.

There are ample reasons for Americans to vote for (or against) either of the two presumptive presidential nominees. Putting aside my ideological orientation, I can see why some believe Mr. Obama is either unprepared or too liberal to serve. Conversely, despite my suspicions about him, I can see why some think Mr. McCain would make a better commander in chief in a post-9/11 world. (I think there is a strong policy-oriented case to be made against a McCain presidency, however.)

Character matters, sure, because it reveals important information about how a candidate might confront an unanticipated issue or unexpected situation once in the White House. Still, it is not that difficult during the campaign season for political consultants worth their salt to construct biographical narratives about their clients that disguise certain personality flaws while magnifying or exaggerating their virtues.

Put another way, you don't always get what you voted for.

Remember "compassionate conservative" George W. Bush, the man who sold himself to the country in 2000 as a "uniter, not a divider" and a man with a humble, "no nation-building" foreign policy outlook? That mythic person disappeared so long ago that I keep expecting to see his image and vital statistics on the back of a milk carton.

Speaking of 2000, that year, the media depicted Mr. Bush to be a folksy, comfortable-in-his-skin Regular Joe and Al Gore as a mendacious, wooden know-it-all. Neither was an entirely accurate portrait.

Let's assume there was an element of truth to both depictions. Did the president's penchant for passing out goofy nicknames forecast how he would handle the issue of illegal immigration? Were we supposed to divine from Mr. Gore's dramatic kiss with wife Tipper at the 2000 Democratic convention how he might have dealt with al-Qaida?

It is time we stopped voting based on such superficial stupidities and reductive caricatures.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@ gmail.com.

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