David Cox: Personality clash

Column by David Cox

“Which candidate do you trust?”

When former governor Jim Gilmore asked that question in Buena Vista on Labor Day, roars arose from both sides: Republicans supporting him for Senate, and Democrats supporting his opponent, former governor Mark Warner.

In that instant, Gilmore personalized this year’s Senate race. Gone were issues that might separate the two: Iraq. Economy. Social Security. Energy policy. Health care. Yes, each tried to inject some of these back into the campaign. But when “trustworthiness” is at the center, then a personal quality becomes the paramount issue.

Switch to the national scene: Back when Barack Obama was drawing rallies of tens of thousands, McCain ads likened the Democrat to celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Implicitly, these ads put a matter of personality at the center. Then, when Sarah Palin appeared, Republicans had their own figure to go ga-ga over: She became the celebrity of the political moment. She was the Republican persona to rival Obama.

Suddenly, all the talk was of lipstick on pit bulls versus pigs. Coincidence? I really don’t think so. If issues will be trivialized, how much more trivial will be the talk of personal traits, whether it be celebrity or trustworthiness.

And, for that very reason, the talk can get downright nasty. Bill Clinton termed that process “the politics of personal destruction.” When personalities are the issue, not only are real concerns the victim, but so too are personalities themselves.

Ironically, Barack Obama began his campaign pledging a loftier style of politics. John McCain promised to end “rancor” in Washington. Each voter will be the judge as to which has kept or broken his word, and to what degree.

If anything good came out of the last dreadful week, it was at least talk of the economy replaced that of lipstick: At last, an Issue! With the debate season under way, maybe they’ll keep it up. After all, we’re electing a President, not Mr. (or Ms) Congeniality.

I suppose it’s inevitable, though, that personality injects itself into elections. A successful President in our era inspires confidence in his leadership, and personal traits allow him to do so.

By that standard, George Washington would have failed: Ill at ease as a public speaker, he was also an unabashed elitist who worked hard to hold himself and his office aloof in hopes of staying above the push and shove of the political fray. He wouldn’t dream of throwing back a few shots of whiskey with the average Ebenezer, even if it had been distilled at Mount Vernon.

His style doesn’t cut it anymore.

Therefore, does that mean our nation will never elect the George Washington of our era? Could be.

If so, then for better or worse, personality itself becomes an inescapable criterion for election, probably to a greater degree than, say, positions, accomplishments, leadership skills and/or wisdom. I’m not sure I like that idea.

But should that be the case, then politicians had better make darn sure they have what it takes before they go focusing on personal traits…like trustworthiness. Jim Gilmore did not endear himself to most Virginians during his tenure or since. The victim of his campaign, at least, may be himself.

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