Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism.
The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Personality, Character and Conviction

It seems that the next two weeks are going to be a duel right up until the polls close. Though it may be the closest race in 40 years, it might also have the lowest turnout in 75 years. Let's forget about the whole argument of two men of privilege vying for a position of power passed down to them by the stature of their fathers. Men of means have almost always dominated the political arena. We should look at who these men really are. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran ads saying,"the stakes were too high" to elect the divisive Barry Goldwater. With the country at peace and the economy doing well, this year many Americans seem to be thinking that the stakes are too low for anyone to care.

So in the relative low-stakes politics of this election, Gore should be using the good economy to walk away with the election. Why isn't he? Because he is the type of person that everyone likes to see lose. Everyone has had that aspiring Al Gore in a class from time to time. We all know the kid who always had the pre-programmed answers he thinks that your professor or even your kindergarten teacher wanted to hear. Think back to that classmate who ran for every position, lining them up like stepping-stones to higher and higher positions of pseudo-authority. Their entire life is planned out on flow charts at birth, from being elected president of the 8th-grade student council to becoming President of the United States. He's the anal-retentive person who loves lots and lots of committees. In a movie, Al Gore could best play Reese Witherspoon's character in Election. He is the type of guy who would tear down the other kids' posters in a student council election (or raise money with Buddhist monks) to win. I recently read a funny anecdote about Gore's Harvard days that says a lot about his constant struggle to be a leader while also re-defining himself to be "one of the guys." Al Gore the freshman went and got involved in the student government and came back and excitedly told all the black turtleneck-wearing 60s hipsters he was trying to court as friends. They laughed at him because it wasn't the cool thing to do. Conformity killed his collegiate political inspirations.

George W. Bush is the opposite extreme in personality. Everyone knows a George W. Bush in their own lives as well. He is the guy who never seems to put in much effort, but things never go wrong for him. People are drawn to his engaging personality. To an outsider, rather than planning out a strategy for solving the puzzle, it seems like the pieces just naturally fall into place for him. Nothing bad ever happens to people like George W. Bush. He's the friend you want to play pong with on a Friday but who your mother loves when you invite him over for dinner as well. In a movie, George W. Bush could best play Boone in Animal House. People naturally rally around Bush to be their leader.

In this column I have thus far taken a rather satirical view of this election, but I hope that you do realize the bigger point. In an era of tiny majorities and gridlock, personality and, more importantly, character do matter. No matter who wins, the policy may not be completely dissimilar. The Congress will be so closely divided that Bush won't get his huge tax cut and Gore won't get his huge spending increases. Success will come in the ability to bring people together. Bush may not have the pre-programmed fluidity in delivering answers in a debate, but his candor implies an honesty that appeals to voters. In Texas, even many hard-nosed Johnson-esque Democrats like Lt. Governor Bob Bullock found themselves drawn into working together with Bush in a bipartisan manner. So America IS being pushed towards a decision on personality. Voters weren't initially sure that Bush has the competency or experience to be President, but as this fear is dissipating, Gore is appearing to be increasingly unlikable and untrustworthy.

The debates that many thought would kill Bush might be helping him in the long run. Bush showed his competence while Gore spent much of the time during the debates talking down to Bush and to the American people. Gore tried to overwhelm us with his knowledge of nuanced details, which one Wall Street Journal editor this week went so far as to describe as having an "idiot savant flavor." Some voters may be attracted to this level of micromanagement. But many will remember the policy failures that developed when Jimmy Carter tried to run things that way. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan was criticized for not getting caught up in the details, but many credit his great successes at a critical juncture in history on his ability to always keep his focus on the bigger picture. This type of governing did not allow details to get in the way of an overarching theme. The White House is full of policy experts and bureaucratic bean counters to figure out exact details. If the president concentrates on this as well, you run the risk of schizophrenic policy. In the end, a leader needs to be able to step back, look at all the options, stick with his driving convictions and make a choice. It may seem like an election about personality, but in fact it is an election about character. It is a choice between four more years of policy guided by opinion polls and focus groups, or a rebirth of policy guided by core convictions and values, even when they are not the most popular on a given day according to a random sample of 500 likely voters.

There was so much hype about what a champion debater and masterful intellectual politician Gore was. This simply didn't hold true, because he has never been able to show his true self. Gore may now stand as his own man, but I'm curious to know who that real man is. If Gore was the great debater he was made out to be, he wouldn't have had to keep redefining himself over the course of the debates and the campaign. He should have known the right approach all along. Bush feels comfortable in his own skin and stuck with his folksy style throughout the campaign. Gore simply didn't know how to counter this and switched from sarcastic Al in the first debate, to lobotomized Al in the second debate, to Kamikaze Al in the last debate. When going after a new job, trying out for a team, or entering a new school, a lot of our moms have told us to just be yourself. Gore seems unable to follow this simple advice.