Have you ever wondered why we prefer presidential candidates we could see ourselves sitting down and having a beer with? Affable, charismatic candidates like Reagan and Clinton appealed to us because we identified with them and they seemed like real, genuine people. However, before we knock back a brew with the commander in chief, we should first ask if they possess the knowledge, wisdom and work ethic of a truly capable leader. Shouldn’t candidates have to prove their ability to make rational and educated judgments? Unfortunately, the leadership I am referring to is more often found teaching in our schools and universities than in Washington.
Surprisingly, Woodrow Wilson was the only U.S. president to pursue a career in academia, teaching at Wesleyan and Princeton before being elected president in 1912. Wilson is well known for being a brilliant thinker and philosopher, a prolific writer and a progressive democratic idealist. He pioneered policies of free trade and collective international security as a basis for international cooperation. He also established the League of Nations, which evolved into the United Nations and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. His ideas were revolutionary and set the foundation for 20th-century international and domestic policy.
McCain, by contrast, ranked 894 of 899 at the Annapolis Naval Academy and has admitted he is technologically “illiterate,” requiring help from his wife to use a computer. Sure, he has performed the complex search engine feat that he calls “a Google,” but at 72 it is doubtful he could learn and understand the complexities of 21st-century technology that makes our country run. A heartbeat away from the presidency is Sarah Palin, who has by far the most anti-intellectual record of all the candidates. She is a staunch opponent of stem-cell research and believes that humans bear no responsibility for climate change. She avidly believes that creationism, which spurns the scientific method for religious scripture, should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. Even more disturbingly, TIME Magazine quoted Palin as having asked a library how she could go about banning books while she was mayor of Wasilla. In a recent interview, she could not name one periodical that she read regularly, nor could she name one Supreme Court ruling with which she disagreed, besides Roe v. Wade.
On the other ticket, Barack Obama has proven his aptitude for academia and critical thinking. He earned his B.A. from Columbia and later graduated with honors from Harvard Law School. Obama taught constitutional law for 12 years at the University of Chicago and left his job as a senior lecturer only when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004.
A New York Times analysis of Obama’s teaching career described him as an “evenhanded” and provocative teacher. Students raved that Obama challenged their political instincts and questioned everything, looking at each individual issue through a contextual lens. Obama led discussions by “surfacing all the competing points of view… with neutrality and equanimity.” It is precisely this objectivity that has been so conspicuously absent from the Bush administration of the last eight years, and more recently, of McCain campaign rhetoric.
McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis recently said in the Washington Post that “this election is not about issues.” Certainly, he would prefer if it were not. This cynical remark should be the last straw for voters who must not be distracted from the issues that matter: a major economic crisis, rising student fees, a five-year war, countless civil rights abuses, an environment in a critical state of disrepair, failing schools, attacks on gay and lesbian rights, widening income inequality and countless other important issues. It is an obvious distortion that Obama befriends terrorists, yet the McCain campaign spreads the rumor to play on people’s fears. This behavior is not only a slap in the face to the intelligence of the American voter, but it is an immoral and dishonest way to run both a campaign and a government.
We as students and American citizens must demand that our democratically elected leaders be those who can best address issues intelligently and critically with an even hand and wise judgment. If we fail to be vigilant and choose carefully at the polls, we risk more of the catastrophically poor leadership that has plagued us for the past eight years.