Commentary: The 'beer test' is no way to pick a president

The Rock Hill HeraldOctober 2, 2012 

"Sigh! ... Sigh! ... Sigh!"

That's Al Gore in his first presidential debate with George W. Bush in 2000. The sighing, which the audience could easily hear, apparently was meant to convey a sort of mournful contempt on Gore's part: "Oh, George, your stupid answer to that question saddens me so."

Gore’s sighing was widely commented on by political analysts, pundits and ordinary people on the street. The general consensus: What a dork!

I think of Gore as the current presidential campaign slogs along and wonder if Democrats who supported him in the 2000 race have any sympathy with Republicans who now are stuck with their own wooden, animatronic candidate. But the sentiment probably is more like, “So there, see how it feels?”

Gore had the extreme good luck of being opposed in the primaries only by New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who, off the basketball court, turned out to have the charisma of celery. Gore, while equally soporific, won the nomination because it was his turn, which ordinarily is the Republican rationale for choosing candidates.

In this case, though, Gore seemed like the natural successor to Bill Clinton, and he could have infused his campaign with a little energy by inviting Clinton to accompany him on the hustings. Instead, he distanced himself from Elvis, which was a huge mistake.

Even those who agreed with Gore on the issues, admired his service as senator and vice president, and liked his wife Tipper, often had a hard time warming up to the man himself. His singsong speeches, his awkwardness in crowds, his over-orchestrated efforts to look like a normal guy made him seem programmed and robotic.

Sound like anyone on the political scene today?

Poor Mitt Romney. Like Gore, the more he tries to seem down to earth and easygoing, the more he looks like he’s trying too hard. Romney can’t help but resemble the buttoned up billionaire who delegates relations with ordinary people to his manservant.

How does someone so ill at ease with just plain folks, so unnatural in his mannerisms, so unfamiliar with how regular people spend their days get into politics in the first place?

Well, there’s a good answer to that question: Richard Nixon. If ever there was an awkward politician who couldn’t relate to the man on the street, it was Nixon.

And, through dogged determination, he succeeded, serving in Congress, two terms as vice president and nearly two terms as president. In his 1972 re-election, he won 60 percent of the popular vote, losing only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

I have always been disdainful of the “who would you want to sit down and have a beer with?” test of politics. It’s a lousy way to choose a president.

If the nerdy dweeb is smarter, more insightful, better informed and right on more of the issues, he (or she) should win. Whether a candidate is graceful, funny, emotive, openly compassionate and expert at working a crowd shouldn’t really matter that much if his or her ideas are bad.

George Bush, by most measures a regular guy, was a disastrous president. If Gore had won (and many say he did), it is hard to project whether he would have been a much better president, but at least we would not have invaded Iraq.

However, human nature being what it is, we probably can’t help but be swayed by grace, humor, good looks and charisma. I suspect we may fall for a candidate first and then concoct better reasons than magnetic attraction to explain why.

Ultimately, true greatness in the Oval Office might require a combination of charisma and character, humor and intellect, attractiveness and inner strength. Parts of the job might overwhelm the true social misfit no matter how smart he is.

Fair or not, that puts Romney the robot at a disadvantage. He doesn’t have a prayer in the “who would you want to sit down and have a beer with?” test.

Obama’s White House brews its own craft ale made with honey from bee hives on the South lawn.

Romney’s favorite drink is chocolate milk.

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