Real leaders better than perfect ones

MADISON, Wis., (U-WIRE) — In the next 12 months, America will go through the entire painstaking process of electing a new president. Unwatchable debates will be televised. Bad commercials will be aired. Babies will be kissed. Conventions will pre-empt top-notch sitcom entertainment. And throughout all of that, many people will focus only on the “cocaine question.”
I will not rehash the entire debate surrounding the alleged past cocaine use of George W. Bush. To me, it is only the latest example of a disturbing trend; the American public distracting itself with a sexy but meaningless scandal while another election, the outcome of which they will later complain about, just passes them by.
It is patently ridiculous to suggest that our elected officials should be men and women with 100 percent personal integrity. Trust me, we only think we want the most moral candidates. When we are presented with them, we never vote for them — with good reason.
Our nation could not stand for a president who is morally bankrupt, but neither could we tolerate a president who is the opposite. The 2000 race has several candidates with crystal-clear backgrounds, no scandals and impeccable morals: Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Orrin Hatch, and Dan Quayle. And just look at how America is running to these candidates in droves. A supporters’ rally for all four could be held in a phone booth with room to spare.
We as a nation find “perfect” people creepy. They seem, and in some respects are, unreal, for real people are flawed. On top of that, moral fortitude does not necessarily translate into leadership and vice versa. Our last two scandal-free presidents? Jimmy Carter, a failure by most accounts, and Gerald Ford, who wasn’t on drugs but acted like it. And who are the most revered presidents of our century? FDR, Kennedy, Clinton and Reagan, all of whom survived personal or political scandals.
History aside, our current crop of political figures illustrates clearly why the “cocaine question” is a hypocritical waste of time. Clinton’s ethical problems need no restating, although the media obsession with George W.’s alleged cocaine use is curious considering that Roger Clinton, a convicted drug felon, once said that his brother Bill had “a nose like a vacuum cleaner” as governor of Arkansas. Yet Clinton is — and this is coming from a hard-core conservative — at worst a decent president.
Furthermore, the nation’s most popular governor is an ex-pro wrestler who admits to having patronized prostitutes. Then there is Senator Teddy of the revered Kennedy family who some say got away with murder. Hundreds of popular elected officials have admitted to smoking pot. Republican candidate Lincoln Chafee even recently admitted to cocaine use.
As time passes, less and less is considered taboo in our society and, not coincidentally, our public figures become more and more human as well. That’s what we all want — humans, people we can relate to.
We all love knowing that people on TV who seem so perfect and pristine are real people with faults. The public enjoys knowing that Clinton likes McDonald’s and chasing women, or that George W. had a good ol’ time in college. It makes the candidates real, and frankly, a lot more similar to the nation that voted for them. Contrast Bush and Clinton with Jimmy Carter, who stunk as president but whose greatest sin was thinking “lustful thoughts.” Can America really identify with a man who chastises himself for dirty thoughts?
The point is, George W. Bush is not using cocaine. If he ever did, it was long in the past (and yes, I am being consistent here; I never criticized Clinton for anything he did before 1992). And given the nation’s current political climate, it bothers me to know how much of the election cycle will be consumed by this pointless issue.
Hell, if you want to focus the election on some tangential question, why don’t we stop and ask why our choice for president is between the millionaire son of a president and the millionaire son of a four-term senator? No, that makes us think too deeply about the foundations of our political system and the legitimacy of representation. The cocaine question is much less threatening and more amusing.
I’m not trying to excuse moral laxity by saying that no behavior can disqualify anyone from office or that anything in the past is excusable. I’m simply stating the reality that our nation’s morals have bottomed out to the point where candidates without indiscretions are difficult to find and, even worse, undesirable. Anyone who wants perfection in our next president can enjoy voting for Gary Bauer. I’ll take the coke-head or the skirt-chaser any day of the week.
Ed Burmila’s column originally appeared in Wednesday’s University of Wisconsin Badger Herald.