Naturally enough, last week's posts all seem to revolve around politics and the upcoming US Presidential Election.
There's a reason for that - and no, it's not just because my state Govnacudda was nominated for Veep. It's because with Battlestar Galactica and Heroes on seasonal break, I've basically got nothing else to write about.
And because I've done nothing, nothing, but follow the Democratic and Republican National Conventions for the last three weeks, the election is naturally enough on my mind.
One common theme I see repeated at the conventions and in the endless rhetoric flowing copiously from the various orifices of both parties is experience, and who is best qualified to lead the country for the next four years.
Not exactly a penetrating or unique observation I know.
The debate over experience is nothing new, of course. A candidate's qualifications, experience, training, and etcetera ad nauseam have been the subject of debate since the very first US presidential election in 1789. In that first election, George Washington squared off against John Adams, and while there was little doubt that the vastly popular Washington would win, there were those who questioned the general's ability to lead the fledgling nation outside of military matters - and John Adams was chief among the detractors. (Perversely, under the system then in place, the defeated Adams became Washington's Vice President - sort of a "keeping your enemies close" idea. As a result, Washington rarely sought his VP's advice or counsel during the seven years they served in office together. Try to imagine if we hadn't passed the 12th Amendment, Al Gore or John Kerry would have been George W. Bush's VP and how different would things be today? But I digress).
Fast forward two centuries to the current election. If you set aside the basic obligatory debate over fundamental doctrinal philosophy (i.e. the liberal vs conservative argument), the key issue emerging in this race is experience.
Republicans have harped endlessly, mercilessly, relentlessly on the fact that Barrack Obama is a lightweight when it comes to experience. They've gone on and on and on and on, about his skimpy record, about his limited time in office, about his utter lack of military credentials, about his paltry hands-on knowledge of national security matters and foreign relations. Republicans are pushing the fact that the only thing Obama has going for himself is charisma, he's a rock star - which is all fine and well, but do you really want a musician to marry your sister?
Oh, pipe down there, you damned liberals, put down the bunnies and quit hugging the trees for minute and be honest; compared to John McCain, Barrack Obama is a lightweight when it comes to experience in certain areas.
It's a fact, and an easily provable one at that. There's no need to rehash McCain's experience, I think we all have it memorized by now; in every conventional category that counts he's a heavyweight. (Well, OK, if I have to use the boxing division analogy here - he's actually more in the Super Middleweight category, since he doesn't have actual state or federal executive experience). Others can argue this point, and have at great length, but it's one that Obama and his people are no doubt fully aware of - otherwise they wouldn't have added Joe Biden and his experience to the ticket.
Then ... the Republicans went and nominated Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate.
If Obama is a lightweight when it comes to the kind of experience we're talking about here, Palin is in the featherweight division - and the Democrats wasted no time whatsoever pointing that out. As soon as the bell rang they were out of their corner, swinging (and I'm done with the boxing analogies now, thank you for your tolerance).
Despite the things I've said about Palin this week, and the snarky post last Thursday, the truth of the matter is that Sarah Palin has very little in the way of hard executive experience, almost none in fact, most of what she has is charisma - which is a good thing, because John McCain has all the charm and charisma of a pit bull wearing lipstick. I've known more than a few Navy Captains in my career, lovable guys they ain't.
Oh now, settle down, you damned conservatives. Put down the shotguns and bibles and listen for a minute, be honest. Palin was the mayor of a small town - and yes, Wasilla, Alaska is a small town, not nearly as small as the democrats would have you believe, but small. Believe me, I live here. Palin has been the Govnacudda of Alaska for the last two years, more or less (a little less, actually) and despite our size and resources - our total population is less than that of most small towns elsewhere in the US. We've got issues here that are uncommon to most Americans, giving Palin a unique perspective - but the truth of the matter is that she really has no experience in the Washington meat-grinder at all.
However, Palin brings to the McCain campaign the very same strengths that Obama has going for himself, charisma, charm, good looks, and the ability to rally a crowd. What? You don't think that matters? Think again.
See, no matter what your experience, if you want to be the President of the United States, you've got to get elected first. And charisma is a big, big part of that. If either Al Gore or John Kerry had had any charisma at all, we wouldn't be having this conversation, because, seriously here, George W. Bush appeared a dynamic and charismatic speaker in comparison, almost nucular in fact. Charisma is what got Bill Clinton elected, and perversely garnered a large number of feminist votes in the process. Charisma is what not only got Ronald Reagan elected, but made his enemies love him after he was in office, even when they vehemently disagreed with him.
Understand, I'm not dismissing experience, education, or training - but there are other more intangible traits that a good president should have, and the ability to actually get elected is one of them.
When it comes to job qualifications for the Office of President, the Constitution is a little vague:
Age and Citizenship requirements - US Constitution, Article II, Section 1
No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States.
Term limit amendment - US Constitution, Amendment XXII, Section 1
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.
And that's pretty much it for Constitutional requirements, basically, they've got to be at least 35, a natural born citizen of the US, and can't hold office for more than two terms (Note: natural born citizen doesn't mean the baby has to be delivered on US soil. There's some idiot rumor going around that McCain isn't actually eligible to be the President because he was born in a US Navy hospital in Panama. That's just stupid and plain ignorant, Democrats, please stop it now). The Constitution specifies nothing in the way of experience in the military, economics, foreign relations, domestic issues, or the ability to sing and dance or ride on Air Force one without barfing.
Mothers have told their kids for two centuries: "Work hard, study, and wash behind your ears, and maybe someday you'll grow up to be President." Well, true - as long as the kid in question grows up rich, attends an Ivy League School where he majors in law with triple minors in medicine and economics and ROTC, then after college serves in the military performing heroically in combat as a junior Lieutenant and then parlaying that into a senior staff officer position at an unusually young age, then after the military he goes on to practice law while teaching it on the weekends pro-bono to under-privileged kids, then leaves law to run a major Fortune 500 company for a couple of years, and leaves that to become in order: a statehouse Representative, a US Senator, State Governor and finally Vice President. Along the way, he should acquire experience as an educator, economist, energy expert, astronaut, diplomat, public speaker, comedian, and church elder. He should own a farm, ranch, or family 'compound.' He needs to be smart, but not too smart - a genuine man of the people who enjoys a good BBQ and a tractor pull. He also needs to make time to marry his high-school, home town sweetheart and have at least three kids. It also doesn't hurt if he can play a musical instrument or two. Oh, and he' shouldn't waste any time, because he needs to be relatively young too, say fifty or so.
Maybe he should put on a cape and tights and fly around Gotham fighting crime while he's at it, because that's what the job description sounds like to me: a super hero with Attention Deficit Disorder.
It's ridiculous when all strung together, but that's exactly what we're asking for here - and exactly what the respective parties want us to believe each of their candidates actually are.
So, really, what are the job qualifications for President? What experience, skills, and talents are necessary to a good president?
Here's what I think:
1) Charisma: as I said, first you've got to get elected. You've got to make people respect you, and more than that you've got to make people believe in you, believe in your vision, believe in your sincerity and commitment and ability - or they won't vote for you. And once elected, a good president must be able to rally the country, pull people together, heal division and generate consensus. Kennedy and Reagan both burn bright in recent memory because they were charismatic, they could give a great speech and energize a crowd, they could make us believe. The ability to rally the nation is one of the most important roles of the president. Think about it - many times a President may have to convince the nation to do something that we as a people really don't want to do. A President may have to convince the nation to go to war, that's usually fairly easy. But a truly great president is one that can keep the country focused and supportive when the war goes on past the initial patriotic flush. Now before anybody takes exception to that, do a little research. Neither WWI or WWII were exactly popular, and WWII became less and less so as time went by and the sacrifices and shortages began to add up on the home-front. FDR galvanized the nation and kept the people motivated, more than anything he did that. When he died and the much less charismatic Truman took over, that public support began to fade, but by then victory was inevitable. Today, we find ourselves embroiled in another war, this one extremely unpopular, and Americans expect the next President to end it, one way or the other. One method is going to be quick and largely popular but with unpleasant long term consequences, and the other solution is a long term commitment and consequently it's going to be damned unpopular - and the intermediate solution of rallying the country, making a major effort and significant national sacrifice would be even more unpopular. Either way, the president is going to have to sell their decision to at least half the country. But, you know, it's not just war. The next president, if he's any kind of leader at all, is going to have to solve the energy crisis - and no matter what course he follows, it isn't going to be popular. Americans want cheap gas and big SUV's. The next president is going to have to convince both the people and industry that those selfish desires are wrong headed. Sooner or later, one way or another, we're going to have to change - or die - and the president is going to have to convince us to make those changes. Charisma may be the single most important characteristic any president can have.
2) A strong sense of Duty and Honor. The president must be an honorable man (or woman, but I'm speaking of the next president, who, unless something drastic happens, will piss standing up). Honor is the ability to do the right thing, to adhere to a code of conduct, no matter what and no matter the personal consequences. Duty is the ability to place the needs of the nation and her people above your own personal beliefs and desires. Duty is the ability to represent all Americans, both those who voted for you, and those who did not; the President must represent all Americans, not just those of his party or political affiliation. Honor and duty is the ability to look dispassionately at a problem and choose the best solution, even if that solution is proposed by your political enemy. Honor and Duty mean adherence to the oath of President, either your word is good or it's not - there is no middle ground. A President is sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. Period. Any President who seeks to circumvent the rights of the people or the requirements levied on his office by the Constitution, any President who thinks the Constitution is an outdated piece of paper, is not worthy of the office. Period.
3) Intelligence, commonsense, and idealism: A President must be intelligent, educated, and have the type of drive, vision, and experience in life that fosters wisdom. Somewhere along the line Americans have decided that they don't want wise or intelligent leaders. Somewhere along the line Americans have decided that intelligence and education and wisdom are bad things. A significant number of Americans have come to revel in ignorance and use the designation of intelligence as a curse. What are you, some kind of smart guy? What are you, God forbid, an elitist? Americans want their leaders to go to Yale, and Harvard, and the Naval Academy, they just don't want them to learn anything there. That's crap, if we expect our President to make decisions regarding the economy, industry, medicine, education, energy, foreign relations, domestic issues, veterans, transportation, and our country's future then we want the smartest son of bitch we can get our hands on. Seriously, folks, how many good 'ole boys have turned their bait shops into world spanning multibillion dollar industries? Really? Bill Gates started out in his garage, he just didn't stay there - and frankly, love the guy or hate him I'd rather his genius ass was running the country than Cletus and and his beer swilling buddy, Cooter.
What we're talking about here is leadership, the President must be a true leader, not just a leader in name. Despite what motivational speakers might tell you, leadership traits are often indefinable. All great leaders are different, their greatness comes from different talents and strengths, but great leaders all bear certain common traits: Charisma, honor, duty, intelligence, commonsense, and idealism. Those are the things that are critical to the next president of this country.
And yet, they are the very things we talk least about. The candidates and the conventions and the blogs and the pundits all talk about the things that don't really matter.
Such as military experience: Sure, I value military experience in my leaders. But if we are to be honest, military experience in a civilian leader is overrated. Military people historically don't really make all that good of Presidents, do they? Especially the generals, Grant and Eisenhower come to mind here. The junior military folks are about fifty fifty, Kennedy, Bush the Greater and Bush the Lesser, Carter, Lincoln. Now a number of truly great Presidents have been military leaders, Washington and Teddy Roosevelt for example, but a number of great and even relatively good Presidents have not, FDR and Reagan come to mind here. Military experience might tell you something about a candidate's character, but in and of itself military experience just isn't a defining criteria. It doesn't make you a better American, or smarter, or braver, or necessarily more imbued with a sense of honor, duty, and country (Stop! Stop right there, if you're reading this and you don't know me and you're not a regular reader around here and your hands are clenching and you're just all kinds of offended at what I just said, tough shit. I'm a decorated veteran myself who served this country longer than John McCain. So, if your panties are bunched up and you've decided to make some kind of mindless knee-jerk patriotic statement here about how I'm offending veterans, don't. I'll delete it without comment). If you think that only military service defines patriotism, duty, honor, courage, commitment, country, then you're wrong - I can think of dozens of civilian examples, firefighter, paramedics, cop, doctor, teacher, to name a few. Here's the bottom line, we call the President the Commander in Chief, but he doesn't actually lead the charge waving a flag from the forward tank. He doesn't actually design military strategy, or stand heroically on the bridge of the flagship, or decide what attacking formation we'll use. When the White House runs the war, we lose. Period. In reality it's the Secretary of Defense, the Service Chiefs, Joint Chief's of Staff and the Pentagon who run the military, and that's a good thing, because running the military is a full time job for a lot of professional people - and the President has other things to do, and the bald honest truth is that military service doesn't automatically qualify you to lead the military. Hell, I spent 23 years on active duty, from enlisted to officer, in combat and in peace time, at sea and on land - and I doubt that my military experience would make me a better CINC. Because see, in the military we carry out the orders of the President, we don't make policy, we don't decide when or where to fight, we don't decide who the enemy is - all of those things are the purview of the civilian leadership. Nothing in my military experience gives me the insight into military matters at the presidential level.
Executive experience is another area. Seriously folks, it's time to put this chestnut to bed. The simple truth is that being the President is basically on the job training. I don't care how you slice it. Nothing, no job, no military experience, no governorship or time in the House or Senate prepares you for the Office of President. The Office of Vice President may, to some extent, prepare you, but even Veep isn't a sure thing. A rather significant number of really lousy Presidents were prior Vice Presidents - anybody remember Lyndon Johnson? Face it, the candidates don't exactly pick people as running mates who might pull a coup d'etat and that's how we ended up with Dan Quayle and Al Gore. Governorship? Bah, which governorships? California? Texas? New York? Because those are the only states with executive offices approaching a national type economy - minus foreign relations and the military, of course (and don't start with the "but the Governor leads the state National Guard" bullshit either, deploying the Guard to fill sand bags and evacuate people isn't military leadership, and if the Guard is deployed in Federal service they are under the command of the Pentagon and the governor has nothing to do with it). Should we say that if your governorship is not any of the big three states, you can't run for President? What about representatives, senators and such like? They don't have federal executive experience at all. If executive experience is so important - why aren't we nominating more CEO's?
Knowledge of the Economy is another one. Does anybody really believe that the President is sitting in the Oval Office, late into the night with a calculator and a pile of spreadsheets balancing the country's checkbook? Folks, he may sign the budget, but he sure as hell isn't actually doing the books. And frankly, would you really want him to? Again, it's a full time job for a lot of very savvy professionals.
Foreign Relations? Domestic Issues? Health, education, transportation, the environment, energy, agriculture, commerce, and etcetera - the President cannot be an expert in all areas, and the simple truth of the matter is that he's unlikely to be an expert in even one critical area.
The President's job is to lead the country, to rally the people, to be the human face that represents us to the world, to make decisions based on sound advice and professional knowledge. It is those who surround the President that should be handling the details and the responsibilities that require specialized knowledge and experience.
When it comes to the candidate, I could give a good Goddamn if he was a POW or if he taught law at the Ivy League level. I'll tell you what I want to know, I want to know who the kingmakers are, I want to know who the advisers will be, I want to know who he's going to really listen to. I don't care how sterling his character is, if he's got somebody like Karl Rove pulling his strings and whispering in his ear, he's not getting my vote. I want to know who he intends to place in charge of the things that really matter. Who will he choose for national science advisor? Who does he intend to sit on the National Security council? Who are his nominations for cabinet? For the head of the CIA, the FBI, NSA and NASA? Who will be heading up the Federal Reserve? Who will he promote as Service Chiefs? Who are his top ten choices for the Supreme Court bench? And like that.
The candidate's nomination for these positions tells me far more about him than his military service or his voting record, any speech he gives or the rhetoric he spews. Leadership and the ability to surround himself with good people, that's what matters. Understanding of his own limitations in the areas of knowledge, experience, and training, that's what matters.
None of the people currently running are qualified to be the President, but then again nobody ever is, and it's time that we all acknowledge that fact and move on.