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Personality and politics


Fri, Feb 2nd, 2007
Posted in Commentary

While certainly not new news, the personal image projected by politicians is a major factor in their ability to be believed and thus elected. Many may recall the debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential campaign. People who listened to the debates on the radio thought that Mr. Nixon "won" the debate, while those watching on television thought that Mr. Kennedy was the winner. Those of us who watched saw a Vice President, who had refused to wear make-up, appear to be dark and sullen, as if he needed a shave. Thus appearing less appealing than the more "clean cut" Mr. Kennedy. It also did not help the Vice President's case that he perspired greatly because of the TV lights. The damage to Mr. Nixon's candidacy was said to be significant because of his TV image or lack thereof.

Style and image are important when one candidate is matched against another. We need to feel connected to those we wish to represent us. We need to believe they understand the issues important to us. That they have the ability to take our concerns, our fears, our hopes and turn them back to us in the way they speak to us; in the way they appear to us; in their body language, in their dress, and in their attitudes. We must be comfortable with them. We want them to show us they care, to show us the way, to solve our problems, to make us feel better about ourselves. To offer us hope, to offer us solutions that are understandable, to speak to us in ways we understand in words that resonate with our own beliefs. We don't want to be talked down to; we want to be lifted up.

Image and style can carry one a long way. To paraphrase Woody Allen "80% of life is just showing up". But to be a professional "problem solver" one needs to do more than just show up. A politician must convince us that they are like us, but with one exception. That they HAVE THE ANSWERS. They must convince us that they will work on our behalf to meet our needs and to solve our problems.

We know candidates have energy, we know they have charisma. How do we know they have political substance? One might think of political substance as a philosophy based on a moral and ethical foundation demonstrated in a record of achievement and experience. It is also having the "smarts" or wisdom to make decisions that are in the best interests of us all. One who has political substance can answer our skepticism while not pandering to our prejudices. Candidates point to their accomplishments, life experiences, and record of deeds to demonstrate their abilities and readiness to work on our behalf. We can visit their websites, read their position papers, hear them debate opponents, catch their sound bites on radio and television, and evaluate their response to questions during interviews. But, how many of us truly evaluate and compare one candidate versus another? To learn more of the candidates' ideas and positions takes a bit of study on our part. Even a bit of positive skepticism until we feel comfortable with the plans and programs being put forward by each. Sometimes it seems the choice is made on too much image and not enough substance. We need to go beyond the sound bites and catch phrases to find the nuggets of reality in what is being presented.

Perhaps had we done so in 2000, and even 2004, the country might not be in the quagmire in which we find ourselves today.

Alan Lipowitz lives in Peterson.

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