The American presidency came to an end on October 15, 1992 during a Town Hall debate between Bush I, Ross Perot and Bill Clinton. The stage of the Town Hall seemed more like a place for Phil Donahue or Sally Jesse Raphael to strut around, biting their lips, and dragging out tawdry tales for audience applause, than for three presidential candidates to discuss the future of the country.
The audience had more in common with the one that usually showed up to cheer or boo Sally or Phil’s guests, and the high point of the evening and the end of the country came when one of those guests rose and with the distinctive painstakingly slurred pronunciation of the semi-literate demanded that the candidates tell her how the “National Debt” had affected them personally.
Bush I stumblingly tried to turn her stupidity into some kind of policy question, but the WW2 vet was completely out of his depth on Phil Donahue’s talk show stage. The moderatrix however demanded that he answer how it had affected him personally. Forget the country or the consequences, feelings mattered more than policy. It was a Phil Donahue moment and the Donahue candidate stepped into the spotlight.
Bill Clinton understood that the Sally Jesse Raphael audience member did not have a clue what the National Debt is or anything about the economy. But he also knew that it didn’t matter. This wasn’t about the facts, this was an “I Feel” moment. The questioner did not want to know how a problem would be solved, she only wanted to know that the people on top “cared” about her, and Clinton did what he did best– he told her that he really cared.
The draft dodging hippie who had boasted of his drug use and gone to Moscow to defame his country, a man who was at the time every bit the extreme impossible candidate that Obama would become 16 years later, went on to the White House. And the American presidency ended.
Bush II made sure that he would never repeat his father’s mistake. He ran as the “Compassionate Conservative” and the “Uniter, Not the Divider”. He ran as the man who could never be caught flat-footed by an “I Feel” question. Bush II always felt things and insisted on sharing them with us.
The American presidency exited the age of policy and entered the age of empathy. Competency no longer mattered. The man in the grey suit who understood the issues had no place on the stage. To get there he would have to get in touch with his inner child and talk about it. He would have to spill his feelings out so that people really believed that he cared.
Without October 15, 1992, there would have been no Clinton. And without Clinton there would have been no Obama. The Democrats had nominated bad men before, but they came with the patina of experience and credibility. Even the sleaziest and least experienced Democratic President, JFK, spent decades polishing his resume and countering his weak points in a calculated plan to get to the top. But Clinton, reeking of sleaze like the back seat of a beat up Chevy, grinned his way through a primary that no one took seriously because the Democratic Party didn’t believe Bush I could be beaten, and then felt his way through a national election. It was a small step for one man, but a great step for sleazy tricksters everywhere with charisma and no ethics. America had become Louisiana and every Huey Long could aspire to be its king.
The current qualifications for an office holder include the ability to chat on The View, read Top Ten lists for David Letterman and make fun of yourself on Saturday Night Live. Most of all it’s the ability to emote in public, a skill that was once the province of an actor that with the advent of reality TV and the instant internet celebrity has become a basic life skill for everyone.
Bush I was unable to cross the “I” bridge. Obama lives under the “I” bridge. Even more than Clinton, he is the “I” candidate. Conservatives assail him for egotism, but that same shallow self-centered “I’ness” is the lightning in a bottle of modern politics. Only the truly self-centered can fully emote to the back rows. It’s a skill most common to egocentrics who feel their own pain so loudly that they can make it seem like your pain.