Why Johnny And Georgie Can't Lead

By Arianna Huffington

November 08, 1999

Thank goodness for the media! Finally, they have put aside their silly obsession with finding out where the presidential candidates stand on the issues of the day and are placing the focus squarely where it belongs: on the candidates' personal peccadilloes. Wondering who to vote for? Ask Miss Manners.

In their never-ending search for Issues That Don't Matter, last week the media created a firestorm over the weighty question of whether Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has "the temperament" to be president, given his "fiery temper" and propensity to call people he disagrees with "liars" and "idiots." (Shocking. I'm gonna tell Mom!)

It takes a real lack of knowledge of history to claim that a temper is a disqualifier for high office. Even the revered George Washington was known to blow a gasket now and then. One Washington biography describes a time during the battle of Monmouth when he lashed out at Gen. Charles Lee so furiously that "the leaves shook on the trees."

I mean, is this the worst they can dig up on McCain -- that he gets hot under the collar now and then? The press coverage sounded less like political analysis and more like a nursery-school report card: "Johnny is smart, honest and is good with scissors, but lacks self-control and doesn't play well with others. Not sure he has the temperament to be bathroom monitor."

So now that the Temper Question has been raised, how far will it go? Is Jim Lehrer going to ask him, "When was the last time you got really miffed?" or "Are the rumors true that you turn beet red every time the Arizona Cardinals lose?"

Just as we were getting used to the media's fixation on whether our politicians are adulterers -- as if marital fidelity is the (ital) sine qua non (unital) of leadership -- it now appears they're out to uncover whether a candidate is the kind of guy you'd want to go on a date with. It's as if they're trying less to educate us about the candidates than fix us up with them.

"Do I insult anybody or fly off the handle or anything like that?" said McCain. "No, I don't." Now, I have too much respect for the senator as a man of deeply and passionately held convictions to believe that. Personally, I could never trust a man who does not occasionally see red.

Unfortunately, by denying the charges instead of laughing at them, McCain legitimized this line of questioning. Haven't we had enough of politicians falling into the trap of answering questions about their private lives by issuing fake denials or splitting hairs? Are we now going to have to endure finger-wagging declarations -- "I did not get pissed at that woman!"? Or language-twisting definitions -- "Sure, I got my nose out of joint, but I don't consider that flying off the handle"?

All this is a perfect example of what G.K. Chesterton warned us about: "If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals." But now that we've started down this road, in the same way that we had former lovers crawling out of the woodwork to tell tales on our philandering politicians, we'll have complete strangers spilling the beans about the ill-mannered behavior they've observed. How long before we get an eyewitness account ("Customer Jane Doe") of McCain chewing out his dry cleaner because he wasn't able to get a coffee stain off the senator's favorite shirt? ("He really blew his stack," said an unnamed but highly placed source familiar with the stain. "He bent a wire hanger and stormed out.")

Well, far be it from me to buck a hot journalistic trend. So, as a public service, I've compiled a list of the foul dirt slipped to me by the opposition research teams of various presidential campaigns. Here's a sneak peek at the scandalous revelations (I mean, meaningful indicators of leadership) sure to rock the race for the White House in the months to come:

George W. Bush: Has trouble remembering names, especially foreign ones with lots of consonants. (Regrettably this leaked out before I could break it in my column.) Might consider balancing the ticket by choosing Alex Trebek as his VP.

Al Gore: Isn't always careful about separating paper from plastic in his garbage bags.

Steve Forbes: Not sure he has the table manners to be president. Frequently confuses salad fork with entree fork.

Orrin Hatch: Ever since the Clarence Thomas hearings has developed a taste for porn. Owns the entire filmography of Long Dong Silver on DVD.

Bill Bradley: Not sure he has the personal hygiene to be president. Reportedly sweats a lot. Only flosses biannually and once, when he ran out of soap, used shampoo instead, confiding to a friend that it was "just as good."

Gary Bauer: Never on time. Sets his clocks five minutes fast, but then takes five more minutes waking up because he knows they're fast.

Pat Buchanan: Cheap, cheap, cheap. Known to take dates to Der Wienerschnitzel and show off by ordering in German.

Had we used these new, refined criteria for selecting our leaders we would have been spared the unpleasantness of, say, Winston Churchill (drank too much and smoked foul-smelling cigars indoors) or Andrew Jackson (prone to putting his muddy boots on White House furniture).

Politics isn't a charm-school cotillion. I'll take impassioned policies over impeccable manners every time.

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