Is the Ice Bucket Challenge ‘presidential’?

August 27

Thousands of Americans have taken Ice Bucket Challenge, raising tens of millions of dollars to help fight Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerois (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. On Aug. 20, George and Laura Bush joined their fellow citizens in this viral fundraising sensation, bringing a presidential connection to the phenomenon.

The video itself is rather entertaining – Bush sits at a table in jeans and a T-shirt, pen in hand and checkbook at the ready. After acknowledging the “several Americans” who have challenged him to the awareness-raising stunt — New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, golfer Rory McIlroy, and his daughter Jenna Bush Hager – Bush says he does not think taking the challenge is “presidential” and states he is simply going to write a check. As he writes it, Laura Bush “sneaks” up and douses him, before looking into the camera and saying, “That check is from me. I didn’t want to ruin my hairstyle.” The scene cuts to a toweled off Bush, who then challenges Bill Clinton.

Bush’s comment about the ice bucket challenge not being “presidential” is just a set-up for the dousing from his wife. But whether it is “presidential” remains a reasonable question. Several commentators wondered if that was the reason why President Obama chose to write a check after being challenged by Ethel Kennedy rather than have video of him being showered with icy water flood the Internet.

In their book about the image of Bill Clinton, Shawn and Trevor Parry-Giles describe presidentiality as a rhetoric that shapes and orders the cultural meaning of the presidency, helping to define both the office and the occupants. We expect our presidents to be heroic and serious, but we also expect them to be like us. We want them to be smart and courageous, but we also want leaders who make us want to have a beer with them. Occasionally these expectations are contradictory, which sometimes puts presidents and those who seek to become president in a bit of a pickle.

Sarah Palin comments on this in her own ice bucket challenge video, which was prompted by a challenge from the “Arctic Cat guys.” In it, Palin accepts but, like Bush, notes she’ll only be writing a check, stating she’s too old for the challenge before asking the audience, “Don’t you think, c’mon, at this stage of my life, and my career, aren’t I a little too prim and proper for all that ice bucket water dump thing?” Palin notes her daughter Piper already took care of that part of the challenge for the family, and begins her own form of the challenge, which entails taking cubes of ice from a moose-decorated bucket and using them to cool down a glassful of Diet Dr. Pepper. After taking a sip, she challenged Hillary Clinton and John McCain, at which point she herself is doused, and she runs off screen, screaming. A not very presidential scream, if there is such a thing, which might have been Palin’s initial point and Obama’s possible fear.

Other presidential aspirants, however, have tempted fate. Mitt Romney did it (in a suit, natch) as did Paul Ryan, who was actually the one who doused Romney. Chris Christie also took the challenge, and saw the three individuals he subsequently challenged – Sen. Cory Booker, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon – follow through, too.

However, it seems like more presidential aspirants are avoiding the challenge than are taking it. Vice President Joe Biden defied his Onion-driven caricature and demurred and tweeted that he would be writing a check instead. And since Bush made the ALS Challenge a presidential phenomenon, neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton has participated, nor have potential 2016 candidates Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Elizabeth Warren.

It could be that another kind of prudence helps explain this decision: ethics watchdogs have warned against government officials participating as it violates prohibitions on activities resulting in private gain, even if that gain goes to a charitable nonprofit.

More likely, though, is a conviction that while taking the Ice Bucket Challenge might be a good thing and even smart short-term politics, it flies in the face of what Americans want in their leaders. If that is true – and it is certainly an “if” – another question remains: what does that say about us?

Justin Vaughn is a political scientist at Boise State University.

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