After watching the first two 2012 presidential debates, I only wish that President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could have personally observed New York City’s 1969 election.
That year, the city’s handsome, charismatic mayor, John V. Lindsay, after a disappointing first term that had begun with unrealistically high expectations, made a TV commercial crafted by his political advisor David Garth, which was nothing less than a mea culpa. Standing in shirtsleeves on the porch of Gracie Mansion and looking directly into the camera, the mayor acknowledged his failures:
“I guessed wrong on the weather before the city’s biggest snowfall last winter. And that was a mistake. But I put 6,000 more cops on the streets, and that was no mistake. The school strike went on too long, and we all made some mistakes. But I brought 225,000 more jobs to this town. And that was no mistake. … And we did not have a Detroit, Watts or Newark (all paralyzed by race riots). And those were no mistakes. The things that go wrong are what make this the second toughest job in America. But the things that go right are what make me want it.” After publicly eating humble pie, Mayor Lindsay won re-election.
Which brings us to the 2012 presidential campaign, where I have yet to detect so much as a smidgen, let alone an iota, of humility on the part of either the Democratic or the Republican nominee. After the blunder of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, President John F. Kennedy told the press and the people that while “victory has a thousand fathers … failure is an orphan,” and that he was personally responsible for the failure. Kennedy’s favorable ratings rocketed to 83 percent, the highest level of his administration, prompting JFK to muse, “The worse you do, the better they like you.”
To listen to the 2012 standard-bearers is to hear two exceptional individuals who, publicly at least, are total strangers to self-doubt. The first one who straightforwardly admits to having made a policy mistake or failure in judgment could well sew up this election.
Also absent from both candidates is any sign of spontaneous humor. Self-deprecating humor is evidence of emotional intelligence. Criticized for his own more abbreviated hours in the Oval Office, following the dawn-to-midnight work schedule of Jimmy Carter, his White House predecessor, Ronald Reagan could publicly kid himself: “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figured, why take the chance?”
Don’t tell me the Gipper was just delivering a scripted line. He was comfortable and convincing poking fun at himself. There were no comedy writers around when, campaigning for the White House, he was asked by a reporter to autograph a promo photo of Reagan and one of his co-stars, Bonzo the chimpanzee. He inscribed, “I’m the one with the watch.”
Both Romney and Obama could learn from George W. Bush, who, even though most observers believed he lost all three presidential debates to Sen. John F. Kerry, still won re-election and a majority of the popular vote in 2004. Pollster Peter D. Hart sagely explained that outcome: “Voters preferred I Like over IQ.”
One of the reasons they liked Bush was that he could laugh at his own perceived foibles. Addressing his penchant for mispronunciations and occasionally mangled syntax, Bush offered to a press dinner: “You know what Garrison Keillor said the other day? He said that George Bush’s lips are where words go to die.” I have yet to hear an authentic self-deprecating line from either 2012 nominee. That includes both men’s unmemorable routines at this year’s Al Smith memorial dinner.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama: Instead of more PowerPoint presentations, rehearsed lines of attack and hubris, how about showing us, if you have any, some genuine humility and humor? Voters would cheer, believe me.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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