Alumni CLASnotes Spring 2006
In This Issue:

Journey to the White House

International Student Explores the Making of an American
President

Every international student at the University of Florida has a unique story about moving to Gainesville, though many share some common elements: Wandering through the massive campus in the midst of the oppressive August heat, gawking at the size of the Swamp (the football stadium, not the restaurant), and marveling at the number of alligators sunbathing in Lake Alice.

For those of us who arrived for the Fall 2007 semester, we have not only had to learn the intricacies of Gainesville and Florida culture, but have been confronted with perhaps the grandest political spectacle in the world—the race to occupy the White House.

Growing up in New Zealand, I was somewhat of an Americaphile. When the other kids were playing rugby, which is closer to a religion than a sport, I was playing basketball. When we had to do a project on someone we admired, I chose Robert Kennedy, not famed New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary. Thus, from a young age, I became interested in the exhausting, bewildering, lavishly funded and intricate contest for the Oval Office.

Arriving in the U.S. 15 months prior to the national election—an election, as the mass media continually reminds us, that is set to be the most interesting in years—I have become a full-blown campaign news junkie. However, as an outsider still perplexed by some of the details of the American political system, I remain intrigued by the essential question that remains to be answered in November: In terms of skills and character, what makes a president?

So, I turned to some of the experts in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who could provide insight into what specific personality traits are needed to lead the United States.

My journey took me to the office of Political Science Professor Richard S. Conley, author of a number of works on U.S. presidents, including The Historical Dictionary of the Reagan-Bush Era and The Presidency, Congress, and Divided Government. He said if there’s a common factor linking the past occupants of the Oval Office, it is the basic ability to appeal to voters coupled with an inherent desire to succeed.

Lincoln

“To a large degree, most of our presidents have been able to connect with people, and they possess a drive and a search for excellence,” Conley said, adding it is also worth remembering the “human” factor of the race to the White House. “Sometimes, people who crave the spotlight like politicians do are trying to fill a void in their own personality,” he said. “And presidents, like all of us, have to conquer their own demons when they’re in office.”

Conley refers to the late James Barber, former Duke University political scientist known for his work exploring the psyche of presidential hopefuls, when discussing the leadership traits not always apparent to the public on the campaign trail. “Richard Nixon, for example, destroyed his opponents—he vilified people, and made lists of his enemies,” Conley said. “Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was an eternal optimist and he really didn’t like to hear bad news. He would say, ‘I just don’t want to hear this.’ Reagan’s staffers learned this about him, and at times they would keep bad news from him.”

The next expert on my list, Stephen C. Craig—professor and chair of the political science department and director of the UF graduate program in political campaigning—said that while each candidate claims they will follow through with their pledges, he warns voters to be wary of expecting too much from campaign promises. The highly valued characteristic of following through on election assurances is a wholly problematic proposition after winning an election.

“You can never anticipate what a president is going to be like when he or she gets into office,” Craig said. “You can try and look at what they say and predict what they’ll do, but it’s almost impossible to know.”

Even if the president-elect attempts to stay faithful to the substance of his or her rhetoric, Craig said the promises made by candidates may not be what swayed voters in the first place. Quoting the title of a February 11 issue of Newsweek, Craig said, “When it is head versus heart, heart wins.”

In the Newsweek feature, various experts from a range of disciplines described the ways in which the emotional appeal of a candidate will always trump the more logical analysis of a politician’s “platform,” citing the innately human tendency to follow one’s gut. “That doesn’t mean voters don’t care about Obama’s war vote or McCain’s support of the war surge,” wrote reporter Sharon Begley. “They do—but not because these positions would affect them. Instead, voters evaluate how a position makes them feel.”

Craig identifies the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as examples of the existence of this often intangible “feel” factor among U.S. voters. “After the Carter administration, Ronald Reagan made Americans feel very proud again,” he said. “In 2004, George W. Bush made people feel more secure.” Professor Conley agrees that “feel” will be a deciding factor come November. “With Bush, the message is sent that every day there is a threat. That every day, there is the possibility that the sky will fall down,” Conley said. “People may be tiring of that message.”

To consider what it takes to be president in the hyperactive media culture that permeates all aspects of American life in the 21st century, we may first want to go back and visit one of the watershed media moments in the history of the republic’s national electoral process—the 1960 televised presidential debates.

Kennedy

For a moment, imagine that we have been transported to the mid-part of the 20th century: a time of black and white television, limited network channels, and basic sound and low definition images. You are one of 70 million Americans—the largest audience in television history up to that point—tuned in on a late September evening to watch the first-ever televised debate between two men vying to occupy the most powerful political position in the world.

The candidate on the audience’s right, Richard Nixon, the once little-known Republican from California who is currently serving as the country’s vice president, has bluntly ignored the advice of his campaign team by not wearing make-up—his pale face and “five o’clock shadow” facial stubble more noticeable on television than it might have otherwise been. The candidate on the left, the young senator from Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is fresh from campaigning in a convertible in the Californian sun—his tan adds to the contrast between his opponent’s drawn, haggard appearance and the handsomeness that is already part of the Kennedy legend.

As Professor Richard Conley reminds me, the outcome of the Nixon/Kennedy debates was a pivotal moment that affirmed the emergence of an important new campaign tool. The research surrounding the debates has moved into the annals of media studies history: those who listened to the first debate on the radio picked Nixon as the winner, while those who watched the television broadcast of the event overwhelmingly sided with Kennedy.

To get some perspective on the significance of the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy debate and the importance of physical appearance in the age of visually based multi-media outlets like YouTube and MySpace, I consulted History Professor David Colburn, former provost of UF and director of the university’s Reubin O’D Askew Institute on Politics and Society since 1994. Reflecting on visual mediums and the Nixon/Kennedy debates, Colburn predicts that, “Today, we probably wouldn’t elect Abraham Lincoln or George Washington with his wooden teeth.”

Looking back over the achievements of various administrations, Colburn sees one major trend that has shaped the role of the Commander-in-Chief, whether Republican or Democrat. “I think that the best presidents have had the best cabinets,” he said. “Abraham Lincoln was said to have had the best cabinet in the history of the presidency.” However, he said this does not change the influence that the president can wield. “The power of the office is quite stunning.”

But attempting to harness such power in what Colburn calls the “CEO approach” has often proven to be a mistake. “The one leadership style that hasn’t really worked is the CEO approach, particularly by Republicans,” he said, pointing to the Hoover presidency as an example. “It doesn’t encourage the important exchange of ideas. It is more like, ‘I’m in charge’.”

Like Colburn, English Professor Ronald Carpenter emphasized the necessity of fostering the effective exchange of ideas and communicating those ideas to the American public. A specialist on public discourse, Carpenter believes that a successful president needs to be a conduit of the greater abstract desires of Americans. “I think Americans expect leaders capable of articulating the sentiments and strong feelings that Americans have—their beliefs,” said Carpenter.

Author of Choosing Powerful Words: Eloquence that Works and History as Rhetoric: Style, Narrative, and Persuasion, Carpenter argues that the importance of oratorical skill is not only a necessity on the campaign trail, but is what provides the substance of great presidential legacies. “People know words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address,” Carpenter said. “They can quote an exact sentence from Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy would not have attained his acclaim but for the eloquence for which he is still highly regarded.”

Referring to Ronald Reagan’s early acting career, Carpenter emphasized not only the importance of the “right” words but the ability to present them on television. “Reagan learned how to deliver lines to a camera in Hollywood,” Carpenter said. “If he flubbed his lines and they had to do the shot again, the female actor could leave the set and he would deliver the lines again, by himself, to the camera.” Sophisticated communication skills have always been integral to engendering the trust and support of the American people, argues Carpenter, and television changed the dynamics.

In addition to the importance of capturing the public’s attention through the Internet, both the news media and the candidates themselves have consistently trumpeted the diversity of this year’s cast of presidential hopefuls. While historically presidents have not been diverse in terms of race and gender, Conley points out that presidents have traditionally come from “diverse backgrounds.”

From Lyndon B. Johnson, who came from very humble roots, to the wealthy family of Bush presidents, Conley argues the second half of the 20th century has produced a list of presidents with vastly different personalities—making it difficult to identify those traits all presidents appear to share. So instead of trying to compile a precise checklist of presidential leadership qualities, Craig believes the essential questions voters need to answer for themselves are simple: “Who’s got the vigor to be president and who’s ready for the job?”

As the academic year comes to an end and the heat and humidity once again descend upon Gainesville, international students like myself firm up our summer plans—which for many will include trips back home, where our friends and family will want to know about our studies in America. Questions about who will be the country’s next leader will inevitably arise, so we cannot help but keep one eye on the other side of summer and the imminent election.

While cynics say the electoral process is too drawn out and the incessant media coverage borders on hysteria, the campaign provides us, both international students and Americans alike, with a rare insight into this nation’s collective psyche as reflected in the appeals of the politicians. At best, during the race for the highest office in the land, America’s hopes and dreams, fears and insecurities, are played out in the public sphere for all of us, citizens and foreigners alike, to witness. I for one cannot wait to see what happens next.

Christopher Garland

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