The other day, in this season of political glut, I came upon the Facebook comment: I don’t like her because of WHO SHE IS. (Their caps.)I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but it got me to thinking. Who is she? How do we answer that question? Not only for presidential candidates, but for ourselves. Who are you? Who am I?
What comes first in our answer? Marital status, religion, accomplishments? How many children and grandchildren we have? Are we measured by our resumes—the education, jobs, club, church or community offices we’ve held? And does any of that get to the essence of who we are?Maybe it’s easier to narrow down responses that satisfy us, if the subject is a man. We’ve had more experience, historically, with men in elective positions. But even there, it isn’t easy.
We have opinions about people all the time in our private lives. Much of the information we use to arrive at those opinions comes from what others say. People we know and trust. People who actually know the person being discussed.What people say of men and women in politics, however, rarely comes from personal knowledge. Our impression of a candidate is so often a crafted image, created for effect by supporters or opponents. Or both of them at once. One reason we watch televised debates is we’re yearning for a glimmer of reality to shine through the fog of words. And, maybe while it’s at it, penetrate the veil of our expectations.
Because we have expectations of politicians, individually and in general. For a president, we hope to see competence, eloquence, a steady hand and solid judgment. We hope for the hard-to-define quality of leadership.We have an image of what a president should be, whether it’s FDR, Ronald Reagan, or Jimmy Carter. When an outside factor alters that image, it complicates matters. With JFK, it was his Catholic faith. With Obama, it was his racial heritage. With Hillary Clinton, it is her gender. Each designation carried, or carries, with it a fresh set of expectations, somewhat like the filter on a camera lens. It’s hard to know whether that filter is helping us see more clearly or just fogging up the screen.
What do we expect from a woman in politics, in public life? Can she be seen for herself, for the qualities and experience she brings to the job she seeks?When someone is brand new on the national scene, we can make quick judgments, right or wrong. Sarah Palin was new. Bernie Sanders is new. Ted Cruz is almost new.
But when a candidate has been in the public eye for more than a generation, like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, we carry with us a grab bag of impressions, most of them formed when the person was playing a role vastly different from the job of a president.We don’t know what the Donald’s first two marriages were like. Unless we live in New York, we really don’t know how many buildings he has built, or how he has treated any of the people he has dealt with.
But we know Hillary’s husband, or think we do. He has been watched, and pulled, and twisted inside out for us while the camera focused on her face, while pundits criticized her reactions. And so many of the nasty spitballs thrown at him have missed and landed on her. Where at least an impression of them sticks. Every negative thing. No matter how untrue, if it is repeated often enough, it will stick.Worse, given time, its details, along with the way it was thrown and by whom, will be forgotten, leaving only a vague sense, a whiff: wasn’t there something? Didn’t we hear something? This technique has come to dominate politics in the last twenty years, replacing real and honest dialogue for many politicians. Professional handlers know that it works.
Our job, dear readers--fellow voters—is to scrape off enough of it to see the reality that will let us do our civic duty.
(This post first appeared in the Fayette County Record, February 26, 2016.)