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Lange: Presidential Beer Buddies

03/06/12 5:55PM By Willem Lange
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(Host) Presidential campaigns make great efforts to convince us that their candidates are common folk, just like us. Commentator Willem Lange is a retired remodeling contractor, writer and storyteller who thinks that Presidents - like neurosurgeons, for example - ought to be just a cut above that.

(Lange) In the Presidential campaign of 1828, Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, slaveholder, and deadly duelist, ran against John Quincy Adams, a New England patrician. The Adams campaign portrayed Jackson as an uneducated country bumpkin and a poor speller married to a dark-complexioned woman whose previous marriage had ended in a somewhat murky divorce. She was reviled as a "convicted adulteress" and a "black wench." The attacks had a deadly effect; Jackson's wife, Rachel, collapsed and died at only 61 while shopping for her inaugural gown. But Jackson's image as a man of the people - one that Lincoln used thirty years later to captivate the frontiersmen - won him the election by a tiny margin

Those were the good old days of political campaigns. The good thing about them was, the attacks were limited by rudimentary communications. Nowadays they'd spread instantly to every corner of the republic by radio, television, Facebook, and Twitter. But I'm not sure their effect would be any greater than it was then. Because, as George Lakoff points out in his book Don't Think of an Elephant, people don't vote their self-interest as readily as they vote their "frames" - their preexisting biases about the way things ought to be and how well they relate to the candidates. Political advertising, both positive and negative, identifies a target population and attempts to capture it by speaking pointedly to its frames.

One current theme, which began during the recent Bush years, is called the "Beer-Buddy" scenario; to whit, "Ralph Underhill's the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with. He relates to your concerns; he's authentic, just like you. So vote for him."

This helps to explain the intense public interest, in 2008, in Joe the Plumber, used by the McCain campaign to illustrate the plight of the common man - till it was discovered he wasn't named Joe, wasn't a licensed plumber, and owed back taxes. So now he's running for Congress.

If you were looking for a neurosurgeon, an attorney, a psychotherapist, or an investment adviser, would you want the best you could get, or somebody whose primary qualification was that you could sit down and have a beer with him? Joe Klein, in a recent issue of Newsweek, writes, "The beer-buddy test...can be filed under the category of ‘populist baloney,' a metastasizing tendency in American politics. Authenticity is rapidly becoming a euphemism for simple ignorance....Elitists - people who have actually studied complicated stuff and become experts at it - are phonies. Just ask Rush Limbaugh."

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work. Afterward, I may have a beer - but not with a Presidential candidate.


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