The politics of vanilla and Cherry Garcia

David Stokes Pastor, Author, Columnist
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Whether or not the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, manages to succeed in his quest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, one thing is clear — many people think he doesn’t have enough charisma to be president. One conservative media mainstay recently referred to Pawlenty as too “vanilla.” In other words, the guy is too boring.

I’m not necessarily a Pawlenty supporter, but I find myself wondering: Haven’t we had a lot of charisma lately and haven’t we learned that style doesn’t always translate into substance?

There have actually been some rather boring presidents who turned out to be pretty effective. For example, Calvin Coolidge ascended to the presidency the moment Warren Harding died in a San Francisco hotel in August of 1923. Coolidge was at his family home in Vermont at the time, without telephone service or even electricity. When he received the news, Coolidge prayed on his knees. Then his father, a notary public, administered the oath of office in the middle of the night — certainly a modest beginning.

Coolidge was probably the least charismatic president ever. Yet, he was overwhelmingly elected in his own right in November of 1924. Known to us these days as “Silent Cal,” his economy of words was akin to his view on economics in general. He was thrifty, conservative, and talked a lot about character and values. One biographer later called him, somewhat cynically, a “Puritan in Babylon.” But like the actual Puritans of history (not the caricatures portrayed in modern textbooks and media), he was a man whose obvious decency was itself a rebuke to an increasingly indecent age.

Had Coolidge chosen to run again in 1928, there is little doubt that he would have been victorious. But it’s doubtful that he could make the first-round cut in our day.

To many Americans, Harry Truman was a welcome change of pace from the imperiousness of his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. Truman was friendly, but he wasn’t all that charismatic. At best, he was vanilla on apple pie. But he was an effective politician who defied political odds in 1948.

Of course, some leaders could have used more charisma — especially those who liked to act humble in an almost prideful sort of way. Jimmy Carter carrying his own luggage comes to mind. And then there was British Prime Minister Clement Atlee, who was surprisingly swept into power within months of the end of World War II — a war that was won in large part due to the leadership of his predecessor, Winston Churchill. Someone once referred to Atlee as a “modest man” in front of Churchill — a clear dig at Winston. Churchill’s response was the classic retort: “Yes, he is a modest man with much to be modest about.” Churchill was known to admit that, while all men were worms, he surely was a glowworm.

The British eventually tired of Clement Atlee’s modesty and re-elected Winston Churchill in the early 1950s.

What all of this suggests is that there is no clear connection between a leader’s personal style and his ability to govern. Charismatic leaders have at times been effective, especially during times of great crisis. But their great shining moments have often been tempered with brevity.

It is also true that boring leaders can turn out to be incredibly incompetent.

What this should tell us is that whether a candidate is vanilla or Cherry Garcia, such surface qualities should never be primary considerations.

Tim Pawlenty may or may not have what it takes to be a good president. But the decision about our next chief executive should be decided on the basis of something other than charisma or “gotcha” points in some televised debate-like showcase.

Mario Cuomo used to talk about how politics was poetry, while governing was prose. Well, we have a would-be poet in the White House these days. Maybe what we need next time is a Calvin Coolidge kind of leader — someone who is much more concerned about walking the walk than he is about talking at all.

David R. Stokes is a minister, author, columnist, and broadcaster. His new book, “The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America,” will be released by Random House on July 12th.