News & Current Affairs

September 14, 2008

How to be a good president

How to be a good president

Barack Obama says the most important quality is vision for the future. No, says John McCain, the key requirement is experience – or at least that’s what he said until he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Ronald Reagan

A former film star, Ronald Reagan was an excellent communicator

Both want the most powerful job in the world – but neither they, nor anyone else, can agree on what, precisely, are the qualities needed to serve as president of the United States.

Indeed, there is not even a job description – only an oath of office demanding the president defend the US constitution.

What’s more, the job keeps changing, evolving constantly in the 230 years since the founding of the republic.

Still, an understanding has gradually emerged of the key qualities required of a president.

The trouble is, they are so many and various, it’s almost impossible to imagine any normal human being matching up.

Preacher and protector

Ever since Theodore Roosevelt described the presidency as a “bully pulpit,” Americans have expected first-class rhetorical skills from their leaders.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton

Mr Obama’s camp hopes to capitalise on Bill Clinton’s lasting popularity

A president must be able to inspire, to preach, to stir the American people to greater things.

In the modern era, Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all had a great talent for communication; so too did Bill Clinton, though in a different style.

The presidents who have struggled – both George Bushes and Jimmy Carter come to mind – were those who lacked oratorical gifts.

But the job requires more than that. Americans look to their president as a protector, someone who will keep the country strong and ward off its enemies.

Roosevelt was a great war leader. As the former Allied commander during World War II, Dwight Eisenhower made Americans feel similarly secure.

Rightly or wrongly, Americans still revere Reagan for winning the Cold War.

Minimum mendacity

Foreign policy acumen is a related and essential element in the presidential kit of parts.

Richard Nixon meets John McCain in 1973

Nixon and John McCain could both claim foreign policy expertise

It’s why Mr McCain makes so much of his own experience in international affairs – and why the Obama camp equally emphasizes Sarah Palin’s lack of a foreign policy record.

The first George Bush’s reputation rests on his skillful handling of the post-Cold War world, while his son will have to persuade future historians that he did not make terrible blunders abroad.

Yet skill on the world stage is not enough to guarantee the respect of posterity.

Richard Nixon regarded himself as a geo-strategic sage, thanks to his opening to China, but he is still known by a single word: Watergate.

Domestic scandal trumps international accomplishments. Put that down as another lesson for those keen to learn how to be a good president: you need to be, if not saint-like in your honesty, at least not so mendacious that you get tangled up in your own deceptions.

It helps if you’re someone who can get things done. Lyndon Johnson will forever be saddled with the disaster of the Vietnam war, but he retains respect for passing a canon of social legislation – from civil rights to his war on poverty – that genuinely improved millions of lives.

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter was seen as a decent but aloof president

That was largely down to his mastery of the often arcane ways of the senate, which he had once dominated as majority leader.

That hard-headed, practical ability to get results is often underestimated.

In the words of British journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Johnson “pushed through so much legislation which has changed the way we think about equality, equal rights and human dignity, and I think that is a huge accolade”.

Star quality

It’s good if you’re a palpably decent man, as Jimmy Carter was – but less good if that makes you seem lofty, prissy or aloof, as Carter often seemed.

It’s good if you can keep the country at peace and the economy in rosy health – as Bill Clinton did – but less good if you let that get overshadowed by personal indiscipline, as he did.

Finally, in the modern era, the president needs a compelling personal story, great charisma and as much screen presence as a movie star.

As I discovered making “President Hollywood”, the demands of Washington DC and Tinsel Town are remarkably similar.

Which man matches up to this impossible checklist, Barack Obama or John McCain? Well, the American people will decide that on 4 November.

But they had better get used to one thing right away: the president with every one of these essential qualities simply does not exist.

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August 14, 2008

US politician killer had lost job

US politician killer had lost job

Bill Gwatney (handout image courtesy of Arkansas Democratic Party)

Bill Gwatney was taken to hospital but died of his injuries

A gunman who burst into the offices of the Arkansas Democratic Party chairman and killed him had lost his supermarket job earlier the same day.

Bill Gwatney, 49, was shot several times by 50-year-old Tim Johnson at the party headquarters in Little Rock.

It is not clear if the gunman, later shot dead after a police car chase into a neighboring county, knew his victim.

Police said Johnson had lost his job at a Target store on Wednesday morning, after he wrote graffiti on a wall.

Mr Gwatney – a top ally of former President Bill Clinton and his New York senator wife Hillary – died later of his injuries in hospital.

Police said they did not believe Mr Johnson, from Searcy, a town about 50 miles (80km) north-east of Little Rock, had any criminal record.

A volunteer at the party headquarters building said Johnson had barged past staff to get into Mr Gwatney’s office.

Map showing Arkansas

“He said he was interested in volunteering but that was obviously a lie,” Sam Higginbotham, 17, told AP news agency.

Johnson then sped away in a truck and stopped at a nearby Baptist church, where he pointed his gun and told a church group manager he had lost his job.

Police said he was pursued to Sheridan, 30 miles (50km) south of Little Rock, before emerging from his truck to shoot at officers, who returned fire. Johnson later died at a hospital.

The Clintons said in a joint statement that they had lost “a cherished friend and confidante”.

“We are deeply saddened by the news that Bill Gwatney has passed away,” they said.

The couple lived for years in the Arkansas capital of Little Rock while Mr Clinton was governor of the state.

Barack Obama, who competed with Mrs Clinton for the Democratic nomination to run for US president in November, also said he was “shocked and saddened” by the news.

Mr Gwatney was a former state senator who had been due to attend the Democratic Party’s national convention in Denver later this month as a super delegate.

He had supported Mrs Clinton during the contest for the party’s presidential nomination.

Last December, a man who claimed to have a bomb strapped to his chest walked into Mrs Clinton’s campaign office in New Hampshire, prompting a hostage drama lasting several hours.

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