One of the great fallacies of politics — and life — is that one must be liked to be effective.
It helps, just as it helps to be attractive or athletic or kind. But let’s be honest: It’s almost impossible to like candidates once you get to know them.
Yet we dedicate an awful lot of time to measuring candidates’ likability and forcing them to pretend to be someone that some political consultant thinks we’ll admire.
How often during the current season have we heard that Mitt Romney just isn’t likable? Sure, he’s smart, successful, a good family man, a thoroughly decent guy, but we just don’t like him all that much.
A few days ago, a Reuters/Ipsos poll was released with this headline: “Obama gets high marks on likability, weak on economy.”
Well, that clears things up. The economy is tanking, but he’s a nice guy — more likable than Romney by 50 percent to 30 percent, according to the poll. Forty-one percent said they believe Obama “understands people like me.” Only 28 percent said the same about Romney.
The same poll also found that 75 percent believe the economy is on the wrong track, compared to 17 percent who think it’s doing all right.
Who are these people?
This ridiculous matrix for assessing a candidate’s qualifications for office is the inevitable offspring of the cultural coupling of narcissism and attention-deficit disorder, otherwise defined as an inability to think for more than two minutes about anything more complicated than oneself.
Thus, “like me” may be the two most dangerous words in the American lexicon. “Like me, please” has become the operative prerogative of campaigns, essentially forcing politicians to pander so that we can dislike them even more.
Of all the pandering we despise — whether to minorities, single mothers or Bikers for Biden — the most despicable is pandering to the poor. Ah, yes, we’ve all been there: walking miles in the snow with tattered shoes, driving rusted-out cars and fishing furniture from dumpsters.
These last two notches on the totem pole of “been there, done that” were submitted by Michelle Obama during her convention speech by way of etching a sketch of her and Barack’s pre-millionaire lives. Didn’t we all drive crummy cars (if we had one)? And didn’t we all cruise the neighborhood at night looking for discarded tables and couches?
Similarly, Ann Romney invoked her early married days when she and Mitt used an ironing board for a dining room table. In trying to neutralize the impression that the Romneys were born rich and a little too lucky, Ann took a tour of Wales, where her grandfather had been a coal miner.
All these reminiscences were aimed, of course, at being “likable,” as though we need our leaders to have been poor or to have struggled in some pedestrian way. Anyone who has taken a breath has struggled, if not always financially. As Ann Romney told me in an interview not long ago, “We couldn’t be doing this if we weren’t successful.”
Now there’s an honest statement.
While we’re at it, let’s defer to Joan Didion’s observation that it’s not as though we’ve all been “gazing down 600 years of rolled lawns.” She was referring to the fact that, with rare exceptions, most of us are only a generation or two away from the kind of struggles no one wishes to revisit. My maternal grandparents grew most of what they ate and sometimes it wasn’t much. My paternal grandmother was raised in a convent because her parents couldn’t afford to feed their 11th child.
These facts make me no more qualified for public office — or more likable — than the other fact that I adopted a discarded blind poodle. Then again . . .
More to the point: What if the current president were not born of a Kenyan student and a white girl from Kansas? What if his father had been a governor and head of an auto manufacturing company? Would he be less likable?
We are the sum of our genes and experiences, to be sure, and some of us are more likable than others for a variety of reasons. But being “like me” or “like you” qualifies us only as good dinner partners.
Which is not nothing, as long-married couples will attest.