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Abraham Lincoln
A drinking buddy? (Wikimedia Commons)
I don't know about the rest of you, but when I'm looking for a new doctor the first thing I consider about the candidates is whether or not I'd like to have a beer with them. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I immediately headed out to a bar to find an oncologist. I use the same criterion when searching for lawyers and accountants, and you can be sure that I would never hire anyone who prefers wine or tea or orange juice. I'm also certain that school administrators use the beer standard when interviewing applicants for teaching positions, and it goes without saying that nothing could be more important when evaluating police officers and firefighters and operators of heavy machinery. Education, skill, intelligence, experience, courage and integrity are nothing compared to the consummate definition of competence, talent and wisdom that is being able to shoot the shit over a beer.

Of course, no one would take that first paragraph seriously. No one who is a serious person, anyway. It's absurd at face value. And yet a recurring theme that pretty well defines the degradation and insipidity of our national political theater is the idea that we should seek political candidates with whom we'd like to have a beer. It's supposed to be some sort of test of character, but it's actually a testament to the level of idiocy with which some regard the very concept of governance. It was one of the means by which the traditional media manipulated the 2000 presidential election. Al Gore was so clearly much more qualified and prepared to be president that some other standard had to be established to create at least some semblance of a rationale for the very candidacy of the Lesser Bush. So it was the beer standard.

The idea behind the beer standard is that it makes someone a regular guy, which was particularly absurd as applied to Bush, because the son of a president, the grandson of a senator, and the snotty child of privilege and aristocracy whose young adulthood was most notable for the number of times he got arrested for being a reckless boorish asshole will ever be a regular guy. But the standard was even more absurd by its own standard, because who would want to waste precious moments of a life with a dissolute lout who squandered endless opportunities to become something more than a dissolute lout who squanders opportunities? But then the traditional media helped cast Bush as a rancher, despite his not having any actual cattle on his ranch, and as a cowboy, despite there being no evidence that he even knew how to ride a horse. But the bigger problem with the beer standard wasn't Bush; it was the very concept that in evaluating presidential candidates, we should be looking for a regular guy, invented or otherwise.

The national press corps hated Al Gore. They sneered at him for acting like he was the smartest guy in the room, mostly because they felt diminished by the fact that he actually was. They were petty and vindictive and intimidated and insulted, and they never really bothered to notice that the smartest guy in the room had the smartest ideas about running the country. So we ended up with an administration that incompetently ignored screaming warnings about what would turn out to be the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil, an administration that incompetently allowed the perpetrator of that attack to get away, an administration that then manipulated the national trauma over that attack to launch two failed wars (one of which had nothing to do with that terrorist attack), an administration that manipulated the national trauma over that attack for the most cynical means of political gain, an administration that then ignored the screaming warnings that a great city was in imminent danger from a natural disaster that turned into an unnatural catastrophe, and an administration that crashed the economy. Al Gore ended up with a Nobel Peace Prize.

(Continue reading below the fold)

The beer standard of political acceptability hasn't gone away. When Bush ran again in 2004, the major media actually polled the beer standard, which by then had to them been fully legitimized. And it has reappeared this year most prominently in the Massachusetts Senate race. Incumbent Republican Scott Brown has donned the mantle of being the candidate people want to have a beer with, which might in some ways be a good thing considering the embarrassment that was his earlier career doffing his mantle. Not that the career itself is necessarily an embarrassment, but as with his political career Brown is capable of turning any career into an embarrassment. And then we get this kind of embarrassment:

"I'm undecided but I'm leaning towards Brown," says Joe King while watching his children play. “He seems like a regular good guy; he seems like someone who comes down to a field, or someone who, if you saw him at a bar, you’d have a drink with him, you know?”
No, I don't know. And I wonder if Joe King actually said that on his own, without prompting from a reporter who hopes to make a name in the major media. Do people actually talk like that? Do people actually think like that? Has the deliberate dumbing down of our political discourse really so infiltrated public consciousness that an actual person actually says that all on his own?

Brown's Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren, is all sorts of wonky brilliance. No one will ever accuse Brown of the same. So he's relying on the beer standard, which apparently will net him at least one vote. Certainly, being the candidate people want to have a beer with is a better image than is being the toady of Wall Street or the toady of the oil industry, and one imagines he'd rather not be known as the lying boorish buffoon. So beer it is. Along with the hope that Massachusetts voters are shallow and stupid enough to fall for it. Which clearly is Brown's hope:

"Listen, the bottom line is the way that she's approaching things, knowing better than others how to do things. The federal government can do things better than individual businesses and individuals, I think there is an elitist attitude there in the way that she's communicating to us as citizens and telling us how to do things, who should be taxed, who should not be taxed. I'm going to continue to do what I've always done and that's find solutions."
So if he doesn't think he knows better, and thinks it's elitist to presume to tell people how to do things, what's the point of his looking for solutions? Does anyone want solutions from someone who seems to be admitting that he doesn't know better? Does anyone want solutions from someone who apparently so lacks self-confidence in his own ability to find solutions as to think it elitist to want to tell us what those solutions are? And this guy is a U.S. senator?

The beer standard probably won't be a factor in this year's presidential race, given that both President Obama and Mitt Romney went to elite schools and Ivy League universities, and both have earned more money than most people will in their entire lives. The president seems more the guy to talk sports. Romney seems more the guy to talk about his friends who own sports. The president seems a genuine fan. Romney mocks the fans, apparently for not being the outrageously ostentatious spender he is, while bragging about his friendships with the owners. But even if he's much too much the boy in the aristocratic bubble to pull it off, Romney also attempts to depict himself as a regular guy. By lying about having attended baseball games he clearly didn't attend. By blustering about the joy of hunting varmints. While pursuing a political agenda designed primarily to further enrich the already incomprehensibly rich. Such as himself.

Did eight years of Bush not prove that being stupid is neither charming nor admirable, and definitely is not a selling point in a political candidate? Most historians and most people even vaguely aware of history consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt to have been the greatest of 20th century U.S. presidents. Was he the guy people would have wanted to have a beer with? Roosevelt was an avuncular effete aristocrat, but his political agenda made clear that he cared for people and that he wanted to make the nation a better place for everyone, and it was obvious that he was unabashedly smart. As if being smart is something about which to be abashed. Abraham Lincoln was staggeringly intelligent, as even a cursory review of his writings can attest, and he was dour and depressive and a loner. Probably not traditional fun at a bar or over a drink, but definitely a conversationalist who would have left most sober listeners awestruck. And in the opinion of most historians the greatest of 19th century U.S. presidents. The worst crises in the history of this nation were the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II, and the presidents who led this nation through them were not regular guys. They were extraordinary leaders with extraordinary talents.  

Governance is not a game. It is not for amateurs or lightweights. On the federal level it includes national security and the most fearsome weaponry ever devised; it involves the protection and nurturing of the world's largest economy; it involves the application of sciences and technologies that sent people to the moon, created the internet, and monitor and defend against natural disasters and pandemic diseases. It involves ensuring that the air and water are clean, the food safe to eat, and that the children of today will have opportunities to lead full healthy lives for all of their tomorrows. Government officials routinely make or are made by history. To pretend that governance is simple or that anyone can do it, or that we want it led by people with little knowledge and experience or charming but average intellects, is every bit as absurd as it would be to go seeking for surgeons in bars.

If people want drinking buddies, they should call their friends who drink. If they want competent government, they should look for political candidates who aren't afraid to demonstrate that at this most complex and critical occupation they have what should be the requisite commensurate competence.

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