How Gary Hart Taught Me that Obama Will Win in November
I have a friend that I used to hang out with back in the 90s. He’s older than me, and during the years leading up to the 1988 election he worked for the AP, following the various Democratic Presidential wannabes that were touring the Midwest and East coast in what would end up being a monumentally poor attempt at defeating the Reagan-lite George HW Bush. I heard him talk about then-candidate Gary Hart a number of times to various people (usually after a few Long Island iced teas), and each time he said the same thing. I’ve retold his story to more than a few people over the years, and every now and then someone will say, “Oh yeah, I had a friend that worked for X back then, and they tell me the same thing.” So I have come to believe this anecdote I am about to share; you may decide not not to believe it.
For those much, much younger than I, Gary Hart was a Colorado Senator – and for a while he was widely presumed to be the savior of the Democratic Party. He was young(ish), good looking in that monied and WASPy kind of way, and when you saw him speak he just had that… something. People loved him. I mean, they really loved him. And not just Dems. Comparisons were made to JFK, back in a time when comparisons to JFK weren’t made with any candidate that had a full head of hair. For most of the country’s liberals it wasn’t a question of if he would be the next president, but the size of electoral landslide to which he’d coast.
Wait, did I mention people loved him? I did? Well, women really loved him, and he had a reputation of loving them back, in that way that married men aren’t supposed to love women back. Rumors kept popping up about dalliances with models, actresses and attractive groupies in their teens and twenties. Wanting to dispense with all the rumors, Hart finally said to the press:
Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead.
This turned out to be an entirely unwise thing to say, since the press did just that and caught him in a dalliance less than 48 hours later… with a 29 year old model… on a yacht that bore the name – I swear am not making this up – Monkey Business… where he stupidly had other people take pictures of the two of them together.
In the wink of a flirtatious eye, Hart’s political career was done.
My reporter friend, however, painted a very different picture of Hart than people who had only seen him on TV might have envisioned. My friend said said that when the camera was on him, Hart had this charisma that beamed form him like the sun — but when the cameras were off and he wasn’t on stage, he was an entirely different person. The word my friend used was “creepy.” And it wasn’t just him the felt this way, it was the whole press corps. There was something about Hart that made their flesh crawl whenever they were alone with him. None of them could put their finger on what it was, exactly. They just knew that there was something wrong about him, and that – they all agreed, liberal and conservative – he should never, ever be allowed to be President.
They couldn’t report this of course. What would they have reported? That the most popular candidate was someone no one should vote for, but they couldn’t say exactly why? They’d be laughed out of a job. So instead they went way out of their way to catch him. This was before the 24-hour news networks, and when Hart made his infamous request to be followed, he likely assumed that no one would bother because back then that’s not what reporters did. But they did do it with him, and they did entirely because it was him.
This story colors the way I view presidential campaigns today. My friend’s story, like politics and life, is complicated. I might cheer that ’88 press corps for going above and beyond to expose a dangerous charlatan before it was too late; I might pull my hair out that supposedly “objective” reporters treated a single candidate differently because of their own subjective feelings. I might even do both in turns. Whatever judgment I give, though, with each presidential election that goes by I become increasingly convinced that the press corps in my friend’s story is a perfect microcosm of the way all of us as voters act collectively.
As much as we like to pick apart every little and last minutia when predicting presidential races, the truth is we just pick the guy that’s easy to like.
In the threads of M.A.’s guest post, Jaybird noted that Barak Obama’s senior yearbook — where he made an ill-advised risqué and misogynist remark captured for posterity — was never a big story or issue. Jaybird also suggested that if Mitt Romney had made a comment anywhere close to it in his yearbook we’d be publicly dissecting it for days. In this observation, I believe JB is 100% correct. Where I might disagree with him (and most others here) is the question of whose fault that really is. J’Bird and most others will blame the press, but I suspect the fault is really our own. Partisans aside, we will give Obama a lot more leeway than Romney, because Obama is just a more likable person. He has a friendly disposition and comes across as being both relaxed and genuine. (Whether he is or not is a question for another day.) Romney, on the other hand, comes off as wooden, distant, and insincere; inexplicably this effect increases the more he tries to prove himself otherwise.
This dynamic, by the way, is in no way unique to this race. In 2000 Democrats were having fits over the way that both the public and the press perceived their candidate alongside his Republican rival. The younger Bush had a history of being a substance abuser, a failed business person and – maybe – someone who who shirked his military duties in favor of being a party boy. No one seemed all that concerned about it. Their candidate, on the other hand, couldn’t stop facing questions about why he said he invented the internet, despite the fact that it had long since been proven that he had never said ay such thing. Their candidate was more experienced, smarter, a more seasoned and comfortable debater, and was part of the team that had overseen the boom economic excesses the country was currently enjoying. So why was he losing to this silver-spoon-fed yahoo? The answer was pretty simple: People just didn’t like their candidate very much. Fair or not, they saw a stage that held one simple, friendly, likable person and one shrill, overbearing, conceited one, and they chose accordingly.
If I look at every presidential election I have been old enough to vote in, the pattern is both clear and universal: The candidate that is a genuinely likable person wins out over the person that everyone agrees is qualified but nobody really likes very much. Reagan and Clinton dominated over Mondale, Bush and Dole. Bush II beat out a thoroughly unlikable Kerry even though most people were unhappy with both the economy and the way the wars seemed to be dragging out. Before this election, Obama reached the White House by beating out in turns Edwards, Hilary Clinton, and McCain – any of which should have been able to beat the stuffing out of a candidate with so little experience had they come off as even a teensy bit likable. Clinton’s supporters gave off primal screams when Obama used his famous race speech to turn a career stopper into yet another reason people wanted to vote for him, and they had good reason: you could have given that speech to Clinton and had her read it line for line, and people would have found a reason to hate her for giving it it, because they didn’t want to like her.
There are a few quirks to this rule, of course. The Bush I-Dukakis race doesn’t properly fit, since it started out as a race between two candidates that both rubbed people the wrong way. And over the past two elections, the GOP has had two candidates – Palin and Cain – that have been extremely likable but were unable to harness that likablility to bridge the laughingly huge chasm of being completely and utterly unqualified. In each case, however, I’d argue that their ability to get so head-scratchingly far is because they are so easy to like. (Do the Democrats have a counterexample of this on a national level? If so, I’m not thinking of one.)
Romney might well make a better president than Obama, but we’ll never know – in the same way and for the same reasons we’ll never know about John Kerry, Al Gore or John McCain. For all the tea leaf reading we pundits and bloggers engage in with brows furrowed, the truth is we choose our presidents as we choose our friends and mates: out of a subjective desire to spend the time we have with someone we like being around. That’s why seriously loathsome candidates like Gingrich and Santorum were never a real threat to the merely not-likable Romney, and it’s why for all our serious brooding over the next six months Romney isn’t really a serious threat to Obama.
It’s not fair. But it is.
[Note: Post has been corrected, after Pierre Corneille pointed out I had Perot in the wrong race.]