What Makes a President?

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published January 23, 2008, issue of January 25, 2008.
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Let us speak of political virtues.

There’s oratorical skill, long since recognized as a major asset, obviously a Barack Obama strength. Here’s how Aristotle frames the matter in his “Rhetoric” (Book One, Chapter Two): “Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker (ethos); the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind (pathos); the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself (logos).” Obama scores high on ethos and pathos, though he remains somewhat light on logos.

The moving, even transcendent, phrase or slogan can galvanize a stadium-size audience, now and then even an entire nation. Such moments are rare, therefore memorable. None who heard it, for example, will ever forget the power of Lyndon Johnson’s use, in the course of his civil rights speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, of the words “We shall overcome.” Three words, as spoken by the president of the United States one week after the violence in Selma, sufficient to alter the course of the nation.

Obama’s “Yes we can” has similar power, as one can see from the frenzy of enthusiasm it generates in the crowds he addresses. But we do well to remember the limitations of rhetoric: In the quiet after the frenzy, by the cold, gray light of morning, someone is bound to ask, “What exactly is it that we can do?” And if the answer’s “build a better future,” then how shall we define that future, and what materials shall we use to build it?

With the power to galvanize and mobilize comes the responsibility to govern, and much of governing is mundane, is contained in the footnotes and the appendices. It should be a cause for concern to Obama’s supporters — of whom I am one — that he does markedly better in the give of oratory than in the give and take of debate. Maybe, indeed, he does have it all — but there’s a half of it he’s not yet shown.

So then there’s experience, Hillary Clinton’s touted strength: “Ready from Day One.” The benefits of experience can be substantial, if one has the wisdom to learn from experience. (If not, then all experience teaches is how to do the same thing again.) Presumably, one thing Clinton learned from her health care debacle is about the hazards of secrecy. But in far too many ways, what she seems to have learned best is how to prevaricate (a word that derives from the Latin for “bowlegged”) — or, if you prefer its more contemporary formulation, triangulate.

When all is said and done, it is no easier to know what Clinton stands for, despite her policy wonkishness, than it is to know what Obama stands for. She tacks now this way, now that, long on logos but very short on ethos and only intermittently convincing on pathos. Obama galvanizes; Clinton divides.

Passion is John Edwards’s strength. He is all hot, all the time, and his outrage is convincing. But he suffers in comparison to a candidate who has the distinctive capacity to be both hot and super-cool simultaneously. Edwards promises to fight the good fight every day of his life; Obama promises to conciliate. There’s a legitimate “if” about the Obama approach: If the stranglehold of the corporate interests is as menacing as Edwards asserts, it’s really hard to see how conciliation can work. But if Obama can pull it off, surely that’s better than the president as pugilist.

On the Republican side, we have Mitt Romney, the successful CEO, as if turning around a government is analogous to turning around a business, only more so. Managerial skill is a virtue, but a virtue of limited importance. Politics is the art of the possible, not the science of efficiency.

Score one for Mike Huckabee, the one being his unusual affability, his apparent authenticity. But the limits of authenticity are made painfully clear by Huckabee’s recent assertion of the primacy of God: “I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that’s what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat the family.” Even if, as he later claimed, Huckabee was “only” talking about abortion and gay marriage, the statement is inadmissible.

Which bring us to John McCain and the virtues of honesty and courage. One is properly in awe of his courage, best exemplified by his refusal to accept the release offered by his captors in North Vietnam so long as others who had been imprisoned longer than he were not to be freed. McCain’s “straight talk,” however, though straighter than most, is hardly so straight as he claims. Still, on a comparative basis, he deserves praise for an honesty that has so often made him into a maverick.

The McCain problem derives not from issues of character so much as from issues of substantive policy. Cutting earmarks, as he has proposed, would no doubt be a good thing, but it does not address the dramatically more fundamental question of entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. There is no reason to believe, given McCain’s stated conservatism, that he would seek to preserve (much less to repair and extend) the social safety net.

That leaves Rudy Giuliani. But this is about virtues.

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