Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Presidential Qualities

This seems to be the year in which we weigh a variety of personal attributes in terms of whether or not they are suitably "presidential." To some extent it began with Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope book, which engendered a fixation on not just change but audacious change. On the other hand it took some of the commentary from Europe to remind us that lack of ruthlessness can be a major shortcoming in a leader, particularly the leader of a superpower. In a similar vein yesterday I suggested that lack of chutzpah may be just as great a shortcoming. Today is seems as if all eyes (including those of the BBC) were fixed on Hillary Clinton appearing on The Daily Show last night, with particular emphasis on an exchange reported by the Associated Press as follows:

"This election is about judgment," Stewart said to her. "Yet tomorrow is perhaps one of the most important days of your life and you've chosen to spend the night before talking to me. Senator, as a host I'm delighted. As a citizen, I'm frightened."

Responded Clinton: "It is pretty pathetic."

Clinton has always had a good sense of humor, but she did well to let Jon Stewart to set her up with an opportunity to exhibit it. This is not to say that Obama lacks a sense of humor. I actually felt that one of his finer moments on the campaign trail was when he applied the fundamental principles of standup comedy to make his points in Las Vegas.

The point is that there is more to being presidential than, for example, the abstract qualities that Isaiah Berlin called "Political Judgement" or that Obama tried to contrast in terms of the corporate labels of Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer. There are also more concrete qualities of personality and sociability. These are particularly relevant in light of the study published in 1986 by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries and Danny Miller, which observed the parallels between the pathology of a corporate organization and the neurotic behavior of top management. If we are to try to view the country under the same lens that we view business organizations, then such parallels are likely to be relevant. From such a point of view, that sense of humor says a lot about being presidential. Our current President only seems to smirk and very rarely indulges in humor at his own expense. This is a sharp contrast with Clinton, Obama, and even McCain (who could do with some help from Stewart on his delivery). Another way of putting it is that humor may be like that proverbial velvet glove, which often does a good job of concealing whether or not the fist it encloses is really iron. This may turn out to be an extremely important quality when a state of crisis is at its worst; and, regardless of our cultural fear of thinking that way, this particular election is going to demand that we view our candidates in the light of how they are likely to behave in the setting of a worst-case scenario.

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