Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but in the past few days, I've felt overwhelmed by a tsunami of commentary, all of which purports to prove the fundamental nastiness of Barack Obama or, alternatively, the deep unlikability of John McCain. You thought our presidential candidates were nice guys, regular guys, guys with whom you'd like to sit down and have a beer? Guess what, lots of people are now telling me: They aren't.Admittedly, ambition for the White House is not for the faint of heart or for those looking to avoid the limelight, so in that respect it is difficult to imagine some utterly lacking in ambition becoming president.
Thus David Brooks of the New York Times has contrasted the warm and fuzzy Obama on our television screens with "Fast Eddie Obama, the promise-breaking, tough-minded Chicago pol who'd throw you under the truck for votes." The Daily Mail of London has called McCain a " self-centred womaniser who effectively abandoned his crippled [first] wife." In recent months I've also read, or been told, that John McCain snubbed the Vietnamese peasant who saved his life and is rude to his (second) wife in public; that Obama abandoned his beloved church to save his political skin and for similar reasons had some nasty friends in Chicago; that both candidates " flip-flop" on the issues nearest and dearest to them, merely in order to win votes. From whatever political quarter it comes, and regardless of whatever merit it may have, all of this commentary starts with the same assumption: The reader is meant to be shocked, shocked, that these two men -- men who have submitted themselves to months of brutal campaigning, men who have thrown their wives and families to the wolves, men who know they might at any second need to abandon their closest friends -- these two men are not, in fact, very nice people at all.
But why on Earth should anyone expect them to be? In its wisdom, the American nation has devised a presidential election system that actively selects for egotistical megalomaniacs: You simply cannot enter the White House if you aren't one. You might start out as an idealist, of course, and I would even give Obama and McCain the benefit of the doubt here. I'm sure both are patriots, both care about America, both want to make the world a better place.
But in order to become the candidate, each also had to make a series of utterly ruthless decisions, decisions that most nice guys would find unpalatable.
But does ambition have to be equated with being "not very nice?" Does running for president necessarily entail "utterly ruthless" decision making?
I think presidential candidates and Presidents have to make some very hard decisions that require a certain amount of cold calculation. But I don't see either man as utterly ruthless. Their chosen path entails certain, exorbitant sacrifices by those around them, their family most of all. But they couldn't possible make this run without at least the full, private support of their family. Consultation is necessary.
True, neither man has a stranglehold on moral certitude. But just because they are deeply flawed and deeply ambitious men does not make them bad guys. In person they are undoubtedly engaging, even gregarious personalities. But don't confuse private jocularity with an inability to make hard public decisions. Indeed, we expect our Presidents to make hard decisions, some of which may require a cold and hard heart.