More than half the millennials consider at least one of their parents to be their best friend. There was a time when a good parent was supposed to be an authority figure. Now we want to be friends as well, and with all these parents being buddies with their kids, it’s no wonder we want a leader who we could be buddies with as well.
It’s hard to imagine sitting around in your Wranglers having a beer with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Llama, Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Angela Merkel. Each of those leaders feels like someone you’d want to meet with on your best terms, someone who deserves all of your respect. It’s an election year, and we will be deciding on the person who will be our next leader, and one of the leaders of the world. Do we want the most intelligent person, the most well informed or someone whose opinions we agree with? For many Americans, the candidate we like best is the one who agrees with our own ideas.
Recent elections have shown that from the time presidential candidates have appeared on television for debates, Americans have come to need their leaders to look good. It’s hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln, who suffered from depression and probably Marfan’s disease, coming across as the bon vivant Americans wish for now. Obama and Michelle both eat burgers and fries. They seem funny, friendly and likable. But no president in recent years got elected on quite the amount of likability as W. who seemed like he would be a lot of fun to hang out with — and that won out over intelligence and experience for many Americans.
In the current election, it appears that it will come down to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and part of the election question will come down to likability. In a spouse, likability is a real plus. In a friend, certainly, but should it be a primary reason for voting for the leader of our nation? When the Donald insults women, people cheer, and that makes him feel that he is likable. Hillary’s intelligence makes her seem less likable to some voters. We don’t get to choose our parents or our bosses, but we do get to vote for who will lead our country.
Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen has taken the country by storm. In it, we see micro-aggressions against African Americans told in poetic narratives. She tells stories of people being clearly insulting; each one is a reality we’ve seen and heard. Someone says to a black woman in line, “I didn’t see you,” as if it were possible to be invisible.
The Donald is clearly comfortable with not being politically correct; he’s comfortable with micro-aggressions which are for him plain speech. To win a political campaign, you have to be willing to insult your opponent. You have to be willing to get down in the mud, to get dirty.
I’ve long realized that I like to be in a room with people who seem brilliant, people from whom I can learn. I think of conversations with truly great people: Rita Dove, Claudia Rankine, Percival Everett, Peggy Shumaker, Blase Bonpane, all of them people I have learned from. If you’re in the room with someone who is highly intelligent, who is a great leader, do you feel small or do you feel lucky? I feel extremely fortunate, and I think this country would be fortunate if we could have a wise leader.
Seema Reza, who leads the writing program at Walter Reed Hospital, has a new book coming out this year called When the World Breaks Open. It’s a narrative memoir which traces her divorce, motherhood and her leadership of the writing program. She is a leader who, having risked all to divorce her husband, is ready to walk the tightrope with her returning vet students and her sons between being likable and being a leader. She writes of a taste for sour, sweet, flesh, sugar, fire. “The sweetness lingers in the corners of my lips, I catch it on the tip of my tongue and words I form are gentle, kind, ingratiating…” She writes of a world where balance is the dance of life. Where strength means willingness to take risks with grace.
In the coming year’s election, I hope we will elect a man or woman who can make us hold our heads up high as Americans, a person of honor, dignity and intelligence, a person of integrity who will stand up for our friends and attempt diplomacy before fighting. A strong nation requires strong leadership.