Swiftboating our candidates

At long last we know who the candidates are going to be. I, personally, hope that Obama chooses Hillary as his running mate despite the issues of electoral value and the unpredictability of Bill. As to John McCain, I am indifferent to his choice so long as the end result is a loss for the Republicans.

This is not to say that I don’t respect John McCain. He has earned our respect by what he did for the country, even though he almost erased that claim to respect by his unsavory involvement with Charles Keating and the Savings and Loan scandal. But no one will remember that, and even if they did, few of us have any real understanding of its true significance and complexities.

My concern now is the way our electoral system turns candidates’ assets into liabilities, and the way the press foments these misinterpretations. You may rest assured that the candidate who grows and changes his opinion will be accused of “waffling” and “flip-flopping.” The candidate who attempts to be civil and accommodating will be questioned about his toughness. Acting the belligerent bully will be seen as a sign of leadership qualities. Thus it has always been, even when wrapped in soft velvet as it was by Ronald Reagan. One can only hope that the current cabal of jackals — Bush, Rove, Cheney, and Rumsfeld — has soured us on such behavior and revealed its dangerous underbelly.

What bothers me the most is that the nature and quality of discourse that we accept from our candidates would result in our children being sent to their rooms if they were to practice it with their friends. Already we have seen McCain become a barking terrier nipping at Obama’s flesh; Obama become dissembling and disingenuous when forced to jettison his friend and mentor, Jeremiah Wright; and Hillary become a passive-aggressive whiner taking around-the-corner shots at Obama and the press for situations almost entirely of her own creation.

This is a sad state of affairs. These are good people. We each have our horse in the race, but anyone with an ounce of forgiveness and compassion sees that these, and the other candidates now fallen by the wayside, are concerned human beings with strengths and flaws no different than our own. Unlike the present administration, I see no cruelty in any of them. Yet our measure of their worthiness is their success at a game of “gotcha!” If they can avoid getting caught more than their opponents, they are likely to win.

What I would like to see is an attitude of tolerance and forgiveness on the part of each of the candidates and the press. Allow the candidates to be themselves, to make mistakes, to correct their mistakes, and to move on. Let them reveal themselves to best advantage in a long, slow unwinding of their thoughts and beliefs and ideas about governing. Give them room to adapt and grow.

Then, make your choice.

By my lights, the choice should not be hard. But the issue beneath the issue is that we must find a way to allow our candidates to show themselves to best advantage, not to measure their worthiness by how well they stand up under absurd questioning and relentless, often irrational and irrelevant scrutiny. To say that this sort of pressure is what is needed to temper the presidential steel is to promote a negative as a way to uncover a positive. It’s like saying if I spank my child enough, I’ll find out what he or she is made of. Perhaps this is a good way to determine who will be a good Marine, but, I submit, it is not a good way to raise a child or to determine who will be a good president.

So let’s watch and see how this plays out. We may well have broken some barriers in who we can choose as candidates. Now it’s time to break some barriers in finding ways to assess them.

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