Finding the Dignity of the Office

Wednesday, 28 May 2008 04:17 PM

By Christopher Ruddy

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What has happened to the America we once knew?

Indeed, much has changed and not all for the better.

For instance, changes in the American culture have deeply affected the presidency, our institutions, and our democratic process.

On a positive note, mass communication through the Internet and talk radio has been a blessing, not a curse. America's rich ethnic and cultural diversity has offered us more positives than negatives.

But can a country that is more modern, technologically unsurpassed and richer in its ethnic mosaic keep its core values?

That notion is under siege today, and the presidential race is showing the fraying of the nation’s DNA.

Consider how demeaning the process of running for president has become.

John McCain broke his White House campaign schedule to fly to New York to participate on "Saturday Night Live." He made headlines joking about his age.

“I ask you, what should we be looking for in our next president?” McCain queried. “Certainly, someone who is very, very, very old.”

He also told the late-night audience that he has “the oldness it takes to protect America, to honor her, love her, and tell her about what cute things the cat did.”

Indeed it was funny. But in my book it's unpresidential.

McCain should not be singled out. They are all doing it. Back in August 2007 Newsmax magazine featured the cover story, “What’s So Funny?” about the influence of the talk-show comedians like Leno and Letterman on the political process.

Hillary Clinton got into the act when she too appeared on "Saturday Night Live."

The NBC comedy show on Feb. 23 opened with a mock debate where journalists were rough on Hillary Clinton while being starry-eyed about Barack Obama. It matched complaints the Clinton campaign had made — and she even referenced the comedy skit during one of the real presidential debates.

The week after that skit, "SNL" opened its show with another fake debate where journalists went easy on Obama. This time, the skit ended with an appearance by Hillary herself.

I remember the days when a political figure appeared on a chat or comedy show with great trepidation. Before he announced for president, Ronald Reagan was a guest on Johnny Carson’s show. Even though Reagan was an actor, such appearances were rare.

Richard Nixon, who never liked informal settings, ventured on Merv Griffin’s talk show in 1967 only to be asked about the presidential candidate’s reputation as a “loser.” He swore he’d never appear on a chat show again.

One reason politicians were reluctant go on TV shows was that the American people considered it below the dignity of the office of president. Today that view has changed.

The political gurus say these comedy platforms help demonstrate that their candidates are hip, cool, and just one of the average Joes and Janes. I believe the comedy shows are overdone and just one part of the debasing of the political process down to the lowest possible common denominator.

The constant emphasis by the candidates on comedy shows demonstrated how politically correct the political process has become.

Consider when Barack Obama offhandedly called a female television reporter in Detroit “sweetie.” He was quickly vilified by the press as the episode made (unbelievably) top news headlines. Candidate Obama, a potential future president, had to leave a groveling message on the reporter’s answering machine apologizing.

A simple apology was not even enough. Possible president Obama had to offer an explanation to the voice mail, claiming his use of “sweetie” is “a bad habit of mine. I do it sometimes with all kinds of people. I mean no disrespect and so I am duly chastened on that front. Feel free to call me back. I expect that my press team will be happy to try to make it up to you whenever we are in Detroit next.”

Remember, this man may be sitting in the Oval Office making life and death decisions that will affect the entire world, and he has to slobber all over himself making apologies for using the term “sweetie.” (It wasn’t the first time, though. During a campaign stop at a factory in Pennsylvania in early April, he referred to a woman employee as "sweetie.")

From the earliest days of the republic, politicians have sought to reach out to ordinary voters — kiss a baby, wear a cowboy hat, go to a bar and drink a beer. But somehow everything being done these days is taken to the extreme.

Meanwhile, pollster John Zogby argues in a new book, citing polling data, that Americans want their leaders to be authentic. Perhaps politicians are misreading the America public.

Maybe they have a lesson to learn from Coca-Cola, which has succeeded for so long. People simply want the real thing.

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