Flattery is the best policy

by Bernard McCormick Thursday, August 01, 2019 No Comment(s)

Competence in a candidate is fine, but charm (like JFK) doesn't hurt.


One of the great discoveries in this year of fascinating politics is that while many presidential candidates are ambitious and competent, they must also be likable—the kind of person we’d like to share a beer with.

This we take from articles about the candidates, notably Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who many people find difficult to love. She comes on as school marmish, lecturing us on her plan for just about everything. Other candidates, in their quest to be noticed in the crowd, may appear to some as unseemly aggressive, forgetting in the heat of debate that bad form is what they are all running against.

The inference is that this is something new—that past nominees running for high office didn’t need to be likable, just qualified to do the job. History begs to differ. As far back as we have film to record their personae, the most likable men seem to prevail in presidential elections.

Teddy Roosevelt was immensely popular; his powerful personality overwhelmed opponents until he tried the impossible—running on a third party. A few years later his cousin Franklin Roosevelt could be engagingly charming, despite the burdens of his times, at least in contrast to the three dour men he ran against. Harry Truman had the likable qualities of a common man, upsetting the more serious Thomas Dewey in 1948.

“I like Ike” speaks for itself. The smiling war hero, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, was a sharp contrast to the intellectual Adlai Stevenson. And then came John F. Kennedy, whose wit and charm overcame the much better known Richard Nixon, whose stiff presence and shifty eyes could never shake the “Tricky Dick” nickname.

Gerald Ford was famously good-natured, which along with a sympathy vote after Nixon’s downfall, helped him win over Jimmy Carter. Carter edged him in the next election, but the peanut farmer fell victim to Ronald Reagan’s classic good nature.

And so it has been. More recent elections have been closer in the personality department, but the more likable candidate has usually prevailed. They must charm their way to victory like the rest of the winners.

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