Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Running for President, They Often Mislead

One of the great problems in electing an American President is that often those who are effective campaigners are not effective presidents.

This was certainly true with Jimmy Carter. He ran an excellent campaign in 1976, but he was a lousy president. The persona emphasizing honesty he displayed in the campaign appealed to the American people, but he brought cronies in from Georgia, didn't understand how things were done in Washington, could not set priorities, and finally his nerve failed in the Iranian hostage crisis.

In 1968, Richard Nixon campaigned on a persona claiming that there was a "new Nixon," more respectable than the one who had smeared Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas in his early California campaigns. At the time, L.A. Times editor Bill Thomas told me emphatically, "There never will be a new Nixon." Thomas was right. In his presidency, the old, disreputable, ethically-compromised Nixon came back with a vengeance.

I think John Kerry tried to mislead the American people in his 2004 campaign about what kind of President he would be. He stressed his military service, and at the Democratic convention even claimed he was reporting for duty. It was only after the 2004 campaign that it became manifest that Kerry really was a cut-and-runner, with contempt for those who have served in the military in Iraq. Not everyone will agree with me, but I think Kerry would have been a horrible president. Thank goodness, I didn't vote for him.

To be fair, George W. Bush did not give an accurate picture in the 2000 campaign of what kind of President he would be, saying he didn't believe in nation-building and was for restraint in foreign affairs. But Mr. Bush has the excuse that no one foresaw what was going to happen on Sept. 11, 2001, and that changed the whole ball game. We had a better idea what kind of President Mr. Bush was in 2004, and reelected him. Still, I think few people realized how stubborn he could be.

Unfortunately, all too often, it is guess work as to what a person will do as President. The nation's political reporters often end up as surprised as anyone.

But there are clues, and it seems clear to me that verbal mistakes and foul ups that take place on the campaign trail may not deserve the attention they get in determining what a person is likely to do in office, or whether he will be good in the job or not.

George Romney's "brainwashing" remark destroyed his campaign, and Edmund Muskie crying over attacks on his wife spoiled his. But neither should have been taken so seriously, in my view.

Now, I notice, Hillary Clinton, on her first visit to Iowa, the vital early caucus state, got immense attention for an offhand remark that she had had experience with "evil" men. The audience, assuming she had made a slip about her husband, Bill Clinton, and his philandering, laughed a full 30 seconds, and every reporter there wrote about it. This became the most memorable moment of what was probably not too good a weekend for her as she began her 2008 campaign.

Again, I feel this is an exaggeration of the importance of chance remarks. I remember in covering several presidential campaigns that we reporters often picked up on such a remark and made a mountain out of a molehill.

There is no guaranteed way of telling how anyone will turn out as president, but the press should focus its attention on issues stands and personality traits that have something important to say about what kind of president he or she will be. And certainly, the demonstration of corruption or severe flaws early in life should not be neglected in the analysis.

Just the day this was posted, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware put his foot in his mouth by depicting Sen. Barack Obama as "articulate...clean" etc. It seemed to be a suggestion that Obama was the first black candidate to fit these descriptions and as such was appropriately viewed as suggestive of a racial slur. This is not just a chance remark, and deserves attention, because Biden has run into campaign trouble before, such as when he was caught plagiarizing in his 1988 campaign. Perhaps, Biden's campaign is not long for this world. He may have to withdraw again.

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