Monday, December 17, 2007

Likability Not A Sure Guide As To Best President

It was clear in reading the article on former Gov. Mike Huckabee by Zev Chafets in yesterday's New York Times magazine that Huckabee for the most part is a likable candidate for President. So were two other small state governors who ended up president, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992.

It does not follow, however, that likability is a sure guide as to whom will be the best president, and sometimes likability establishes itself only in time. Abraham Lincoln was considered an ugly "baboon" by many when he was elected president in 1860 with only 39% of the vote, the least proportion in American history. Yet Lincoln eventually came as close to being a secular God as anyone who has ever occupied the White House.

Carter turned out a more likable ex-president than president. He could not set priorities and he did not prove up to either handling inflation or the Iranian hostage takers. Many people liked Clinton, but I wonder, in the long run, whether Clinton will be considered even a near-great President. He let things like the health care issue slip through his fingers, and he underestimated the threat of terrorism. It took a long time before he seemed comfortable in foreign affairs.

Although, in his exhaustive examination of Huckabee, Chafets found he is personable, commendably conducting his so-far highly successful campaign on a shoestring, unlike other Republicans coming across as distinctly cool on the record of President Bush and being considered by many to have been a fairly good governor of Arkansas, Chafets reports he also may have a mean streak and, as governor, seems to have accepted about $150,000 in gifts. Yes, this is quite like some other Southern governors I knew as the L.A. Times Southern correspondent in the 1970s, and it means that while, likable, he is not entirely likable, and may not wear well in national politics.

Actually, one of the most striking things in Huckabee's record, besides his career as a Baptist preacher, is his blustering reaction when his scandal-ridden predecessor as governor, Jim Guy Tucker, first said he would resign after being indicted and hand over the office to Huckabee, but then reneged on his promise. Chafets reports, "When it became clear that garment-rending wouldn't get Tucker to go away quietly, Huckabee took direct action. He addressed the people in a statewide telecast, informing them that he was now in control; he threatened impeachment proceedings against Tucker; state troopers were mobilized to protect the capital. All this activity had the desired effect. Tucker re-resigned. In fact the whole affair was wrapped up by the 6 o'clock news."

Terrific, even likable. But Huckabee actually behaved here as if he were Pakistan's dictator, Pervez Musharaff. I wonder how such high handedness would go over in Washington if Huckabee were vice president, and he undertook to oust the President by what amounted to a coup d'etat.

Two bad signs about Huckabee include his almost total lack of knowledge on foreign affairs, and his recent criticism of the Mormon religion. I felt the latter was out of place, and unfair to Huckabee's apparent main Iowa opponent, former Gov. Mitt Romney. (although Romney flip flops so often on key issues, he is not entirely likable).

Actually, unlikability is perhaps a better guide to whom should not be president than likability is as to who should be.

Richard Nixon and the men around him, such as Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell and Ron Zeigler, were not likable. In fact, I remember someone remarking, at the time of the Senate Watergate hearings that they were so ugly and evil looking that no one could possibly have any confidence in them. Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Mitchell all ended up in jail, and Mr. Nixon might well have ended up there too had President Gerald R. Ford not pardoned him.

Going beyond the Nixon Administration, here and abroad, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Torquemada and Dennis FitzSimons have not been likable, and you know how they did in their positions. (FitzSimons is not as reprehensible as the others here mentioned. He is not a bad man, just woefully incompetent).

One of the best stories in Sunday's Los Angeles Times was consumer columnist David Lazarus' article on Donald Trump. Now, there is someone who is not likable, enticing the poor and vulnerable in to hear sales pitches of dubious character. Lazarus is likable for going after him, but I would hesitate to say Lazarus is qualified to be president.

Also, Sen. Hillary Clinton is not entirely likable. but she may end up to be competent. That has not yet been established.

Choosing a president is not exactly a popularity contest. We need someone who may not be the most admirable personality around, but can do the job in an acceptable, competent, moral and shrewd manner.

Yesterday's New York Times also contained a fascinating graphic showing how often various issues had been mentioned in the presidential debates held thus far. Global warming was scarcely mentioned by any of the candidates, I imagine in part because the moderators didn't ask about it. That doesn't mean, however, that the next president may not be judged significantly by what he does on the global warming issue. The incompetence of the moderators, however, is a subject for another blog.

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It is pleasing that the not always-likable King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has today pardoned the 19-year-old girl, who was subject to a gang rape and then sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail because she was in a car with a male friend who was a former fiance when the gang showed up. That was certainly the right thing to do. and it may even improve Saudi Arabia's general likability.

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