by Stan Cutler
We vote for candidates we trust. If elected officials succeed, we are proud. If they fail or misbehave, we are embarrassed by association. We want people in office who live our values and who understand our circumstances. Elections are cultural skirmishes as well as personal contests and policy fights. They are ethnic. They are tribal. They are racial. Regardless of issues, “character” matters most.
The President is a personification of the national character, someone who represents the best in us. Some Americans object to President Obama because of who he is – a mixed race American with an Arabic name. No matter what he does, no matter how meritorious his job performance, they cannot get over the fact that he is not like them and not how they see the best in themselves.
Right or wrong, most Americans believe that men and women have different kinds of character. If a woman runs as the Democratic candidate for President in 2016, she will personify a feminine national character that many voters will not endorse.
I’ve been looking at the transcription of the 1948 Democratic Party Convention that nominated Harry Truman in Philadelphia. Nominating speeches are intended as declarations of a candidate’s virtue, packages of prose about admirable character.
After a 68-year absence, the Democrats are returning to Philadelphia in 2016. I wonder whether we have changed? Despite an altered world, is “the American character” different after 68 years? Is what we admire today the same as what we admired when television was a novelty and people did not imagine a smart phone or a gay marriage or an African-American President?
Four names were placed in nomination in 1948. A segregationist Senator from Virginia, Truman, and two “favorite son” candidates. Truman’s character was extolled in a long nominating speech and in 12 shorter seconding speeches. It was done by roll call, each delegation had a microphone that only worked at Chairman Sam Rayburn’s whim, but he was obligated by the rules to call the entire roll of 48 State Delegations.
Twelve seconding speeches! We’ll never know whether Rayburn fantasized about using the gavel as a cudgel. He died in 1961.
The Truman ethos was characterized as courage, strength, wisdom, tenacity, integrity, leadership, energy, vision, country, soldier, city, American and as devotion to the sacred creed. For many people, as far as the character issue was concerned, FDR’s selection of Truman as his 1944 running mate was the most convincing character endorsement possible.
They’ll have a roll call for nominations in 2016, even though the outcome will have been preordained by the primary elections. Deborah Wasserman Schultz will be holding the gavel. We are unlikely to hear more than one nominating speech and only a few seconding speeches. The candidate(s) will be described as brave, wise, energetic leaders. I didn’t read any characteristic attributed to Truman that could not be attributed to a candidate’s credit in 2016. In this sense, the American character seems constant.
But the ethos will be different because of gender. During the Truman era, Betty Crocker was an ideal. Girls these days admire Katniss Everdeen, the female warrior protagonist of “The Hunger Games.” Even if a woman is not the presumed nominee when the convention begins, it will be conspicuously managed by women. Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Wasserman Schultz and others hold powerful leadership positions in the Democratic Party. We’ll hear about the same virtues, but not the same way.
There are at least two reasons for this. First, generally speaking, women and men are passionate about different things. We will hear a lot about “women’s” issues. And second, a woman is perceived by most people as being less warlike than a man. We entrust presidents with an arsenal of diplomatic tools that rely fundamentally on our military dominance. That’s an awful power, for good or ill, to entrust to a single individual.
If the Democratic nominee is female, her campaign will challenge the stereotype of a yielding woman by emphasizing her willingness to unleash the dogs of war. Americans will have to get their minds around a feminist militarism. How will the Democrats manage it? What messages and images will they present?
One of the seconding speeches for Truman was delivered by a woman, an ex-Army Major, a World War II veteran. Her ethos, because of her gender-melded persona, was intended to bestow a compassionate “female side” on Truman without diluting the masculine vigor of a decorated artillery captain who’d served in World War I. The speakers nominating Truman spoke of the medals he’d won, and that he’d been the President in the end stages of World War II.
In all likelihood, if the Democratic Party’s 2016 nominee is a woman, we will hear speeches by veterans of our Middle East wars, some of them women, and each will testify to the nominee’s warlike character. If it’s a man, belligerence will be assumed.