June 06, 2007

Personality and Politics

Richard Nixon is one of the most recognisable names in American politics- the former President and Vice President of the United States's reputation though has come down to one moment- Watergate- the break in to the democratic headquarters and the subsequent coverup and scandal. Nixon though was much more of a President than his reputation as 'tricky Dicky' might suggest- one might argue that the man who invented the Southern strategy of the Republican Party, brought in the first affirmative action contracts for black applicants in the public sector, made peace with China, ended the Vietnam war and inaugurated Detente not to mention a host of other acheivements and failures deserves a different reputation. Watergate though captured something about Nixon- his suspicion of outsiders, paranoia about the world and rage against the establishment were all illustrated by the Watergate burglary. Watergate and particularly the tapes that Nixon had to reveal which illustrated his temprament casts a shadow over his Presidency.

As George Packer points out in the New Yorker that's hardly unusual. Both for American Presidents and British Prime Ministers and other political leaders a single moment- Thatcher and the miners strike or the Falklands, Major and Back to Basics, Clinton's is that isn't, LBJ and the napalm in Vietnam, Harry Truman and the atomic bomb decision or the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine, FDR and the only fear that is fear itself- sums up their entire time in office. There is a manifest injustice in this- on both sides. Sometimes a political leader like Truman is defined by his acheivements- like the creation of NATO- avoiding some of the opportunities that perhaps he missed. Sometimes a leader like LBJ is defined by a war that he had no real part of avoiding for instance his visionary social programs which were perhaps the most visionary in the whole of American history. Political careers can therefore be unjustly defined- but I think there is also a curious way in which this way of defining leaders by significant moments is actually justified.

Jennifer Senior in the New York Magazine writes interestingly today about the way that modern American campaigns work- again in a completely unjustified way a reporter or even a citizen follows around a candidate watching for a mistake and then might put it on YouTube or the countless other video hosting sites. Such an occurance destroyed the recent campaign of George Allen for senator of Virginia- the then senator was caught mouthing a racial slur macaca and the video uploaded to Youtube, Allen had to go on Meet the Press to apologise and it effected his campaign and possibly even lost him the election and hence the Republicans the senate. Jennifer Senior argues that actually this model of campaigning is good- essentially it tests candidates to destruction, in particular Presidential candidates to destruction- you find out if like Howard Dean they scream when beaten- and that's useful because Presidents come under pressure and no matter what their political orientation, how they react under pressure. If someone becomes a racist under pressure- then they might if there were riots in major US cities return to those beliefs, if they become angry under pressure, well what happens when someone isn't pointing a mobile phone at them but a nuclear missile and so on.

Personality, Tony Benn used to say, was less important than issues. Mr Benn was wrong about many things in British politics- this is one of them. Part of the role of the politician is to take decisions that most of us never have to take- decisions which effect millions- and they have to remain calm. They have to remain calm in front of the most amazing insults flung at them domestically and internationally. Their personal qualities count- the fact that Gordon Brown finds disagreement difficult to deal with or that Tony Blair finds formality hard to understand are faults in them as Prime Ministers and policy makers. Ultimately its very difficult to know much about the government that governs us- the decisions that George Bush made this week on Sudan for example need to be understood in the context of East African affairs that people like me, fascinated by politics, barely understand. We grope in the dark when it comes to policy- which is why personality offers us a clue to the way in which politicians approach areas of policy that we are not informed about.

President Nixon's conduct over Watergate revealing all his prejudices but also an underhand intelligence- a mind prepared to use any means to success as he defined it revealed something about his way of approaching his Presidency. He ran a campaign to unseat the Democrats in the south, whilst offering affirmative action to Northern Blacks. His foreign policy could fairly be characterised as realist- no man could be further than Henry Kissinger from Paul Wolfowitz. Most of the period Nixon's administration different bits of the government were bugging other bits of the government- a fact that blew into a crisis in 1971 when members of Nixon's administration demanded that other members be arrested for effectively spying. Nobody knew that at the time- the majority of the people in the country still probably don't know about it- but because of Watergate- that apt summary of President Nixon's Presidency, they know the man.

One might say similar things about President Clinton's sexual appetites and the Lewinsky scandal- long after Paula Jones and a whole cabal of women have vanished the meaning of is will remind us of President Clinton's sexual desires and the tendency for them to lead him down risky roads. There is more though Clinton's famous comment demonstrates something else about the advocate of triangulation- that sense that he kept just this side of the law and just about succeeded in surviving. The whole investigation, with its prurient claims about semen stains and puritan attacks on lying (led incidentally by the same people who think Scooter Libby's lying was not significant and are campaigning for Scooter's pardon) sums up a particular era when the Republican Congress seemed to be on a witchhunt over Clinton.

There is an issue of course when people get the wrong image- John Major in my view has been unfairly maligned as a British Prime Minister- but in general these personality issues- the froth of politics- are important- we don't have the time to investigate the questions of what policy should be so most of the time we elect someone's judgement to decide for us. The thing is that if that person is a bad enough judge to tell a racist joke would you elect them as a Senator?


Richard Havers said...

Politics are becoming more and more like the froth on a trendy cappuccino. The froth is getting deeper and the actual amount of coffee less and less.

Ruthie said...

What an interesting post, and I agree with you about personality.

I think it's a shame that our current cultural climate has reduced candidates to sound bites and pithy catch-phrases.

Then we're surprised when they speak in poetry and govern in prose.