Can you imagine what would happen if a hospital hired a surgeon based solely on how the applicant dressed? Or can you guess what would happen if NASA offered a top engineering position to a candidate simply because that applicant spoke with poise during the interview? And yet, are we not being asked to pick a president in the same manner?
Currently we are told to look for candidates who “LOOK PRESIDENTIAL.” And though looking presidential is never defined, we are told who qualifies. We were told that as Hillary commented on the man who assaulted one of her campaign centers in New Hampshire, she looked presidential. We were told the same about Mitt Romney as he talked about running for office as a Mormon. And after each debate, one of the most often made comments is whether or not a particular candidate looked presidential.
All of this reminds me of what I use to read in a John Malloy “Dress For Success” book. In one of his books, Malloy’s team would train actors to interview for technical jobs for which they had no qualifications. The goal was to see if these actors could secure job offers based solely by how they presented themselves. And unfortunately, they often succeeded. What was involved was more than just the clothes these actors wore; it included their posture, how they walked, how they sat, and how they spoke. The successful actors presented themselves as how upper middle class people supposedly present themselves.
And thus we have our current state of affairs when picking a president. We have often been told, by the media, to favor the candidate who looks presidential only to see that that candidate was indeed incompetent. Will we do this again in 2008?
There are three parties who are working to ensure that we vote by appearances. The first party is the candidates themselves. They are purposely vague on their positions and future policies. Chomsky notes that what people supported during the 2004 election was a candidate’s image. That what the candidates really proposed was not accessible to the voters. This was why Kerry’s proposed health programs were not understandable to the public. This was why people who were concerned with values had no knowledge how Bush’s positions would support out their values.
Do we see anything different this year? In the most recent debate, most of the Democratic candidates mentioned few details but rather talked about the need to unite the country and return it to the people. How would they do this? Nobody knows. But some of this is similar to what we heard when George Bush was described as a “uniter.” And what do we hear from the Republicans? We do hear a few specifics, as unwanted as they are. We do know that most Republican candidates want to both build an impenetrable border fence and bomb Iran—though bombing Iran might have to be put on the back burner for now. But what we are told is that to vote for a Republican is to vote for our security—even though it is never explained that Republican plans to further American dominance only increase terrorist recruiting and incite terrorist attacks.
The second guilty party here is the media. They are the ones who first and most often talk about looking presidential. Why would mere appearances be important to them? One could guess that by shaping the public image of each candidate, the media could be guiding American public opinion to support “acceptable” candidates. We should consider the media’s treatment of Dennis Kucinich when thinking about the possibility of the media trying to shape a candidate’s image. While Democratic candidates were being asked to address a broad range of questions, Kucinich was being asked about his belief in UFOs and what to do with toys made in China. In fact, Kucinich and Mike Gravel were left out of the final Iowa debate. In addition, one should note that today, more media outlets are owned by fewer corporations. We also should also note that one of the common complaints made by those visiting this country is that there is so much news reported in the world that is not broadcasted here.
The final guilty party is we the people. Like a teacher who practices grade inflation, we have lowered the bar for what is considered acceptable journalism by the media and adequate candidates running for office. For all of our opportunities and responsibilities, we Americans are disengaged from participation in our democracy and in staying current with the world. The question becomes why are we so disengaged?
The answer might lie in our prosperity; for just as curiosity killed the cat, comfort kills our curiosity. That is we are disengaged from our democracy because of our wealth or search for it. And thus we are content with voting for simply because they “look presidential.” For as long as we are either enjoying our earthly treasure or in the process of finding it, we have neither the time nor interest to pay close enough attention to see if the candidates are truly qualified. In fact, some of us might think that if we have enough possessions, we will be shielded from whatever the future brings.
Currently, our nation is in the process of interviewing candidates to one of the most significant positions in the world—the President of the United States. It is an important position because of the power that the President inherits with the job. The question for us is will we be content to choose by appearance and select an actor who is not qualified; or will we Americans put in the time and effort, despite the inconveniences, to do what we can to make a wise selection? Also, the more we judge the candidates by appearances, the more our selection is controlled by others.