Presidential candidates have two sides just as coins do. This has almost always been true, but it is now more so than ever. Their obverse side wants to please voters. Its face says what they and their campaign advisors think voters want to hear. Their reverse side seldom speaks. It is the side, which should they win, will have to make decisions in the world beyond campaigns, that is, in the opaque, ferociously demanding, and complicated real world of the presidency itself.
In fact, the obverse side of a presidential candidate, the only side we usually see, often tells us very little about what kind of president he or she would be. In the case of those who have not had high executive office before, no matter what their verbiage and campaign position papers, we are can only guess how they might perform when given ultimate responsibilities.
In 2008, with its large number of choices in both major national parties, and no one among them previously holding the presidency or the vice presidency, the American people are really left in the dark in spite of the plethora of debates, appearances, political analyses and microscopic media examination of candidates and their personal histories.
We lump together what we think as most important as the notion of "character." This, we say, will instruct us best. But how do we accurately determine character? Many voters, and many in the media, want to examine personal lives. Obviously, this tells us something. But does it it tell us the vital information we need to know? A candidate has been divorced, for example, but what does that tell us about how they will act as president? A candidate attended, or did not attend, an Ivy League or other top university for his or her education, but does that predict competence in the Oval Office? A candidate served for many years in legislative office, even high legislative office, but does that prepare one sufficiently for the conduct and decision-making in the ultimate public executive office?
Looking at the 2008 list with this in mind, we have so far a very cloudy view, a view obscured by slogans, short sound bites and long position papers, measures of fundraising, ethnic and religious labels, contrived advertising, and attempts at political one-upmanship. Nor are the candidates and their campaigns helping us see through all the political camouflage.
After all we have seen and heard so far, and after this cycle's excruciatingly premature contest, we are still left guessing if we are going to get a "pig in a poke" such as Jimmy Carter, a bright man who turned out often to be incompetent as president, or a Harry Truman, a man with no college education who turned out to be exactly what the country needed and a man of true presidential character. Will we get a Richard Nixon whose character was so flawed that it overshadowed his presidency or a Ronald Reagan who has become the modern icon of his party?
We see the obverse sides of this year's candidates, but we have been left to guess their much more important reverse sides.
There once, and only once, was an American coin which had the same obverse and reverse. During the brief period between the American revolution in 1776 and the adoption of the Constitution in 1788, there was a semi-official coinage. Among the most popular of these coins, were the coins which portrayed the hero of the Revolution and the man who would become the nation's first president, George Washington. One of those coins had the head of Washington on both sides (known today, not surprisingly, as the "double head cent") and was minted in 1783. George Washington was the only American president perhaps who truly did not seek the office. He definitely was the only president to be offered a royal crown (reportedly, he turned it down three times), and notwithstanding the cherry tree myth, was known for speaking his mind and pandering to no one.
But he was a slaveholder who wore a wig, He would not have had a chance if he ran in 2008.
-This article was first published in The Washington Times on October 25th, 2007.