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The Making of the President 2004

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-11-02

As of today (Tuesday), the United States has had 43 presidents in its 228 years as an independent nation. By tonight, it may well have the 44th if Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, defeats the incumbent, Mr George W. Bush, Republican of Texas.

Of these presidents, I have journalistically covered eight, going back to my student days in the US during the turbulent 1960s when another Texan, Mr Lyndon Baines Johnson, occupied the White House. I caught a glimpse of President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he came to my native India in 1959 - I was only 11 years old then - and briefly saw Mr Harry Truman well after his presidency. I would have loved to have seen - let alone covered - President John F. Kennedy, but I arrived in the US only in 1967, four years after his assassination.

For any journalist - whether a student or an established professional - a presidential campaign is a plum assignment, albeit an exhausting one because of the frenetic travelling through many off America's 50 states, some more than once if a candidate sees himself vulnerable there. Such an assignment teaches you how the American democratic system works not only nationally but also at the ward level, where constituents must be mobilised by party workers and often cajoled to the voting booths. One exhortation attributed to the old, corrupt Democratic Party in Chicago was: "Vote early and vote often."

Covering campaigns also teaches you how important retail politics is - that is to say, how effectively a candidate connects with voters in person, and not just through the hyperbolic medium of television, shapes their perceptions. There's an old saw in US politics: people vote for people whom they like, not for candidates whom they don't. Senator Kerry, with his long jaw and craggy face, sometimes comes across as Dr Frankenstein's monster on TV; in person, he's actually quite relaxed and amiable, even if not exactly charismatic like Mr Bill Clinton.

President Bush is often compared unfavourably with his predecessor, Mr Clinton. But in my view, he's at least as good a retail politician. I remember seeing him at the National Urban League convention in Washington - the biggest gathering each year of American blacks - where he easily mixed with a constituency that couldn't be quite considered his ideological or ethnic brethren. Mr Bush is very good at working the room, an essential skill for politicians. Like Mr Clinton, when he talks to you - even if it's for a few seconds - he engenders in you the feeling that you're the only person in the room with him.

Of course, it's a skill that's surely been perfected by practice, but it leaves you with a good impression nonetheless - whatever your views of Mr Bush's politics and policies.

That means, to be sure, that journalists need to be especially careful of being seduced by a politician's manner. It was said of Mr Clinton that he was driven by the desired to be liked; privately, people close to him told me that the 42nd president of the US understood even as a student running for office a Georgetown University that when people like you, they vote for you. And when journalists like you, their writing can often influence more voters still.

The candidate's essential likeability is one of two factors that shape US presidential elections. The other is pocketbook issues. Mr George H. W. Bush - the current president's father and Mr Clinton predecessor as president - found that out, much to his regret. When a TV crew showed him at a supermarket during the 1992 campaign seemingly befuddled by a checkout counter, it showed voters how much out of touch Mr Bush was with everyday concerns for consumers - such as food prices. No wonder that Mr Clinton's canny advisor, Mr James Carville, came up with the now-famous line, "It's the economy, stupid!"

But the irony is that a president - any president, no matter how congenial and how enlightened about economic realities and policies - can do very little about the nitty gritty of everyday governance.

For that, he - and, I hope, eventually, she - needs to pick smart aides. And covering presidential campaigns can offer you valuable insights about factotums who could be elevated to policymakers and executives if their candidate succeeds.

So one of the first rules of campaign coverage is that reporters should closely observe the candidate's staff and cultivate sources relentlessly. An informal meal or two, even if hurried, has the potential of translating down the road into a useful professional association if that aide becomes an important actor in someone's presidency.

Thus, reporters who cultivated Mr Robert Rubin, the investment banker and close advisor to Mr Clinton, found themselves benefiting by his recognition when he later became US Treasury Secretary. Mr Rubin was widely credited with being one of the architects of an economic policy that left Mr Clinton's successor, Mr George W. Bush, with a budgetary surplus of more than US$500 billion, a gift that the latter unwisely went on to squander through increases in defence expenditures and the war in Iraq.

In my time observing and covering presidents, what was the single wisest decision taken by an American president? It was President Johnson's unexpected announcement that he would not seek a second term. The Vietnam War had so riven the nation that Mr Johnson did the most honourable thing for a man whose decisions would eventually cost more than 50,000 dead American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilian and military casualties as well.

I think he would have defeated Mr Richard M. Nixon - who resigned in disgrace after the Watergate scandal in August 1974 - but another Johnson term would have destabilised American society to the point of class warfare.

The dumbest thing I've seen an American president do? It was President Jimmy Carter - actually a very intelligent man who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work in his post-presidential phase - appearing despondent on TV in a cardigan and telling Americans that it was a time of low morale in the US. That's when the economy wasn't faring well, and Mr Carter spoke the truth.

But it was truth spoken with poor timing. Leaders need to look like leaders, and Mr Carter looked anything but presidential. I wasn't surprised when later he was defeated by Mr Ronald Reagan, a man of unfailingly sunny disposition whose once told me - before he became president - that during a visit a long time ago to my native India, he actually enquired whether his movies were exhibited there.

He said he was pleased to find out that indeed they had, and acknowledged that all actors needed to be reassured that someone went to their movies. I thought it was a very touching admission from a man who by then had already been governor of California and was running for his country's presidency.

And the most human gesture I've seen in a president? It came from the current President Bush when he was asked a couple of years ago what present he would give his wife, Laura, for their 25th wedding anniversary. Out of range of TV cameras but within view of some reporters, Mr Bush winked with unmistakeable lasciviousness in response to the question. He was an OK guy, I thought to myself.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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