It’s high Presidental primary season here in Pennsylvania, 2008 and I can’t leave this momentous era without SOME kind of observation on the process. I’ve been watching a lot of primary night analysis, and one thing that few people touch on is the “Head of State” factor.
That is, one of the major duties of the president is to serve as Head of State. Normally this is seen as a “trivial” duty since I think most people associate it with opening the Olympics, attending important funerals or supervising the Easter Egg roll. And yet, I think it’s an important sub-conscious factor in our decision making process.
After all the Head of State also has to comfort us in times on national tragedy and also be able to relate to the average citizens he (or she) has to meet and greet. How do we know if a presidential candidate can relate to average citizen? One way is to challenge them to a fish toss in Seattle. Another is to see if they have a sense of humor about themselves – self-deprecating if possible. Abraham Lincoln is maybe the best -known master of the art.
And if you think about our recent successful two-term presidents, you will see that almost of them had a sense of timing regardless of party boundary. On the Democratic side we have Bill Clinton, and the late John Kennedy (his press conferences still make modern audiences laugh). On the Republican side there has been Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (really).
Chances are that the list I just named has at least one president you absolutely can’t stand – but if you watch their quips or speeches for the National Correspondents Dinner, I bet you will see they had a great sense of comic timing. Some of our recent one-term presidents (Carter and Bush I) had more problems with this of self-deprecating comedy, and, sure enough, they were beaten by candidates with better comedic timing. Oddly enough, Nixon is our only recent anomaly – he was never known for great timing yet won two terms. But look at what happened to him!
And for 2008 – does it still matter? We don’t know yet, but I submit that at least one candidate is having problems partly because that person has not completely mastered the art of delivering a good quip (a few have backfired very, very badly). It sounds shallow, but I also sense that it can be a sign of deeper issues with the candidate. When all you really know about a candidate is what you see on TV, it’s interesting what cues you may have to use.