Monday, June 20, 2011

The Politics of Vanilla and Cherry Garcia

[This column originally written for THE DAILY CALLER]

Whether or not the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, manages to succeed in his quest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, one thing is clear — many people think he doesn’t have enough charisma to be president. One conservative media mainstay recently referred to Pawlenty as too “vanilla.” In other words, the guy is too boring.

I’m not necessarily a Pawlenty supporter, but I find myself wondering: Haven’t we had a lot of charisma lately and haven’t we learned that style doesn’t always translate into substance?

There have actually been some rather boring presidents who turned out to be pretty effective. For example, Calvin Coolidge ascended to the presidency the moment Warren Harding died in a San Francisco hotel in August of 1923. Coolidge was at his family home in Vermont at the time, without telephone service or even electricity. When he received the news, Coolidge prayed on his knees. Then his father, a notary public, administered the oath of office in the middle of the night — certainly a modest beginning.

Coolidge was probably the least charismatic president ever. Yet, he was overwhelmingly elected in his own right in November of 1924. Known to us these days as “Silent Cal,” his economy of words was akin to his view on economics in general. He was thrifty, conservative, and talked a lot about character and values. One biographer later called him, somewhat cynically, a “Puritan in Babylon.” But like the actual Puritans of history (not the caricatures portrayed in modern textbooks and media), he was a man whose obvious decency was itself a rebuke to an increasingly indecent age.

Had Coolidge chosen to run again in 1928, there is little doubt that he would have been victorious. But it’s doubtful that he could make the first-round cut in our day.

To many Americans, Harry Truman was a welcome change of pace from the imperiousness of his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. Truman was friendly, but he wasn’t all that charismatic. At best, he was vanilla on apple pie. But he was an effective politician who defied political odds in 1948.

Of course, some leaders could have used more charisma — especially those who liked to act humble in an almost prideful sort of way. Jimmy Carter carrying his own luggage comes to mind. And then there was British Prime Minister Clement Atlee, who was surprisingly swept into power within months of the end of World War II — a war that was won in large part due to the leadership of his predecessor, Winston Churchill. Someone once referred to Atlee as a “modest man” in front of Churchill — a clear dig at Winston. Churchill’s response was the classic retort: “Yes, he is a modest man with much to be modest about.” Churchill was known to admit that, while all men were worms, he surely was a glowworm.

The British eventually tired of Clement Atlee’s modesty and re-elected Winston Churchill in the early 1950s.

What all of this suggests is that there is no clear connection between a leader’s personal style and his ability to govern. Charismatic leaders have at times been effective, especially during times of great crisis. But their great shining moments have often been tempered with brevity.

It is also true that boring leaders can turn out to be incredibly incompetent.

What this should tell us is that whether a candidate is vanilla or Cherry Garcia, such surface qualities should never be primary considerations.

Tim Pawlenty may or may not have what it takes to be a good president. But the decision about our next chief executive should be decided on the basis of something other than charisma or “gotcha” points in some televised debate-like showcase.

Mario Cuomo used to talk about how politics was poetry, while governing was prose. Well, we have a would-be poet in the White House these days. Maybe what we need next time is a Calvin Coolidge kind of leader — someone who is much more concerned about walking the walk than he is about talking at all.

David R. Stokes is a minister, author, columnist, and broadcaster. His new book, “The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America,” will be released by Random House on July 12th.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


WELCOME BACK TO HISTORY IN THE NEWS. This blog has been down since 2009--yikes!--but I am back at it and will post here regularly, especially my opinion pieces that feature, of course, a "history in the news" theme.

I have also kept some of the "Best of DRS" articles archived here. I have written about 300 such articles over the years--this grouping is from 2008 and 2009.

Stay tuned---and watch for the release of my new book, "THE SHOOTING SALVATIONIST: J Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America." It comes out (distributed by Random House) on July 12, 2011.

Check out the website:

Can Mitt Romney Take a Punch?

[This column was written for THE DAILY CALLER]

The parallels between Mitt Romney and his famous dad, George Romney, are many. The most obvious are that both men were successful in business before becoming governors (Mitt was the governor of Massachusetts a few years ago and George was the governor of Michigan in the 1960s).

But there may be another parallel — Mitt Romney may have inherited his father’s political glass jaw.

I grew up in suburban Detroit in the 1960s, and I remember the elder Romney as a popular, charismatic governor of Michigan. His face could regularly be seen on TV channels 2, 4, and 7 — the big stations connected to the networks. Then there was Channel 50, a UHF station that you needed a special, oddly shaped antenna to receive. It was a cool station for cartoons, old re-runs of sitcoms, and vintage movie shows hosted by minor local celebrities. You would never see a politician there -- except on the weekends.

On Saturday and Sunday evenings, Channel 50 featured a guy named Lou Gordon. In retrospect, he was probably the first television host to do the kind of “gotcha” and in-your-face, hardball interviewing that is very much the norm these days. He was a pit bull and in 1967 was ready to be syndicated across the country. The inaugural show would feature an eclectic line-up, including a couple from an organization called “The Swingers” (advocates of wife swapping), as well as an in-depth interview with Governor George Romney. The Mormon moralist governor was probably unaware of the other guests when he dropped in to tape his segment. Romney was a fan of the show and had even once filled in as a guest host when Gordon was on vacation.

This interview became famous because it demonstrated George Romney’s weakness: He couldn’t take a punch.

In fairness to the late former governor of Michigan, it is important to tell a part of the story that few these days have heard, one about a tired and overstretched candidate who over-trusted his ability to think on his feet, even while being knocked off of them.

Thursday, August 31, 1967 was a typically frenetic day for Romney and included a visit with his grandchildren to the Michigan State Fair. The plan was to only stay a bit and have the photo op, giving him plenty of time to drive over to the Channel 50 studios. Then, one of his grandkids inexplicably wandered off, creating understandable panic. For a time, state troopers searching the fair grounds wondered if a kidnapping might be in play. But they found the child riding the Ferris wheel, oblivious to what was happening. Governor Romney — now rattled and very late — made his way to the studios. His shoes were covered in dirt and whatever else from the fair grounds. He really should have rescheduled.

Plunging headlong into the interview with his friend Lou Gordon, he was asked at one point a question about Vietnam. It was a predictable query for any candidate back then, but especially for Romney. He had been making fuzzy and even conflicted statements about the war in Southeast Asia for the prior few months. Romney had been to Vietnam in November of 1965, a trip that included thorough briefings from General William Westmoreland and U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Lately, however, Romney seemed to be changing his view of the war from that of “hawk” toward “dove.”

What he had to say to his friendly interviewer that day would, in fact, become his political epitaph:

“Well, you know when I came back from Vietnam, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam…I have changed my mind…I no longer believe it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression.”

A few days later, even before the show aired, Lou Gordon read over the transcript of the interview and was struck by the word “brainwashing,” sensing that it might make good publicity for the show. He contacted a friend at the New York Times and furnished a transcript. On September 5th, a day after the show aired, the Times had a brief story about it all on page 28: “Romney Asserts He Underwent ‘Brainwashing’ on Vietnam Trip.” And over the next few days, the story went viral.

George Romney never recovered. He went on to serve as a cabinet officer under President Nixon and was by all accounts a man of decency and generosity, but the single word “brainwashing” is how most remember him these days.

Lou Gordon died in 1977, but his legacy -- rapid-fire media questioning -- lives on. Mitt Romney will no doubt face many in the media who play hardball. Will he be able to navigate their questions, or will he face his father’s fate?

[David R. Stokes is a minister, author, columnist, and broadcaster. His new book, “THE SHOOTING SALVATIONIST: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America,” will be released by Random House on July 12th.]