Laugh-In was starting its second season on NBC, and the vaudevillian hour of irreverence and political satire opened with the phrase it had made famous. This time it was delivered by the unlikeliest of comics. "Sock it to me?" deadpanned the Republican presidential nominee, Richard M. Nixon.
In the 2008 election, just about everyone running for president, including front-runners Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton, has a pitfall of personality.
Ah yes, the New Nixon.
And so he seemed to be in 1968 as he emerged from his years in the political wilderness. Gone was Tricky Dick of the sweaty upper lip and the Red-baiting past. In his place was a softer-hued, self-deprecating, even personable man.
The transformation was only a matter of degree, however. Nixon kept his sharp ideological edge and his stern demeanor in running as the law-and-order candidate, the enemy of urban rioters, anti-war protesters, and the liberal Supreme Court. As he eked out a victory over Hubert Humphrey, the "happy warrior," even the New Nixon was a son of a bitch.
Four decades later, in this Age of Oprah, could Nixon get elected again? (Answer is below.) In politics, as in every other form of popular entertainment, personality counts. A candidate's likability is important in itself and also serves as a clue to the Holy Grail of presidential politics -- character. Likability helped Ronald Reagan in 1980 ("There you go again"), just as its lack injured Al Gore in 2000, when his sighing-at-fools demeanor turned him into fodder for Saturday Night Live.
"In an information society, in the celebrity society, personality -- celebrity -- is very important, if not the most important," said Stanley I. Kutler, a retired historian who taught at the University of Wisconsin. "Do you see the country clamoring toward Bill Richardson?"
In the 2008 election, just about everyone running for president has a pitfall of personality. Could Americans stomach four or eight years of Joseph Biden's or John Edwards's smile, or Fred Thompson's dour disposition, or Barack Obama's high tone, or Mitt Romney's white-bread family? Both parties' front-runners, ironically, may have the most to fear. Republican Rudy Giuliani and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton possess celebrity in spades. But they had better hope that, as in Nixon's day, being hard to like won't hurt them.
Of the pair, Giuliani might have the bigger challenge. For most of his two terms as mayor of New York City, the constituents who knew him best despised him. Ed Koch, a former Democratic mayor, crossed party lines in 1993 to endorse Giuliani, but by 1999 he wrote a book titled Giuliani: Nasty Man. The same year, Quinnipiac University's Polling Institute found that only 28 percent of New York City residents considered Giuliani likable, compared with 53 percent of suburbanites and 54 percent of upstate New Yorkers. The farther away people lived from the mayor, the better they liked him.
Of course, this was before the tragedies of September 11, 2001, transformed Mayor SOB into a national icon of leadership and steadfast courage. That crisis and his bout of prostate cancer in 2000 made Giuliani more solicitous and compassionate, at least for a while. "He's still under its spell," Koch said in an interview, referring to 9/11. So far this year, a kinder, gentler New Giuliani has trod the campaign trail. But personality transplants are rare at age 63. The old, mean, pre-9/11 Giuliani has occasionally seeped through; how well his discipline will endure, in the crucible of an interminable campaign, is anyone's guess. "I don't think an epiphany lasts for normal people," Koch said, "only for saints." Giuliani, despite televangelist Pat Robertson's endorsement, isn't a saint. His street-smart, down-and-dirty skill as a counterpuncher came through during the Republican candidates' November 28 debate in Florida, when he parried Romney's accusation that he had ruled an immigrant-friendly sanctuary city. Giuliani attacked his attacker's "sanctuary mansion" in Massachusetts that employed immigrant yard workers. Prickliness may work in a debate, but too much of it could remind voters of someone they'd rather not watch year after year on the nightly news.
Hillary Clinton's likability quandary -- the opposite of Giuliani's -- burst onto the nation's front pages after the October 30 Democratic debate in Philadelphia. If Giuliani may be too authentic for an SOB-averse public, New York's junior senator runs the risk of not being authentic enough. Her serial equivocations during the two hours of political vaudeville (on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, policy toward Iran, her plan for Social Security, and her archived White House records) threw into sharp relief the widespread perception of an evasive, calculating front-runner who is trying to be all things to all voters. More than once, she started an answer with a comment like "I agree with everything that's been said ... "
In a presidential election in these perilous times, voters are bound to care most about the big issues -- war, terrorism, health care, recession. Still, being unlikable "hurts a lot," Koch said, and it could even undermine the rationale of a candidacy. "A candidate gets unraveled politically when what brought him to acclaim becomes a weakness," explained Lee M. Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
That possibility ought to give both leading candidates pause. Giuliani has built his persistent lead among Republican voters on his tough leadership and calm mastery on 9/11, a reputation that a volatile outburst or two -- on top of the recent indictment of his protege, Bernard Kerik -- could deflate. As the first woman with a serious shot at the presidency, Clinton has sought to build credibility as commander-in-chief by taking a hawkish stance on foreign policy without alienating the dovish Democrats who flock to the polls; having to choose between those two personas could prove fatal.
The reason the two front-runners are difficult to like has a sort of yin/yang connection to their source of political strength. Is Giuliani tough or is he nasty? Is Clinton a pioneer or is she a straddler?
And thus the 2008 election campaign is becoming a Greek tragedy, in which the protagonist's tragic flaw threatens to bring about his -- or her -- downfall.
These are (some of) the counts against Rudy: one cruel press conference, two estranged children, three wives, four World Series rings (for which he paid his beloved Yankees just a fraction of the market price, according to The Village Voice). "Two people, six spouses," by Rep. Charles Rangel's arithmetic, including Giuliani's third wife's three husbands. "There are enough moles on this man," the longtime Democratic lawmaker from New York City told CNN, it "embarrasses those of us who have sought public life."
The ex-mayor's episodes of nastiness are legendary: his insults to citizens ("There's something deranged about you") who phoned his radio call-in shows; the press conference in which he announced to the public and his second wife that he wanted a legal separation; the ensuing soap opera, co-starring his mistress-turned-bride, that New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams christened "Rudith and Judith"; the subsequent rift with both of his kids.
Beyond his exclusionary managerial style (his unwillingness as mayor to meet with the state's top two Democrats because he knew they would disagree with him) and his excessive loyalty to friends (Kerik's rapid rise and faster fall), he could be arrogant and rude, even to allies. Koch remembers the occasion in 1994 when Giuliani phoned from City Hall -- "Ed, I just want to explain why you're wrong" -- to complain after Koch criticized the city's unequal treatment of the competing parties' campaign signs. When Koch tried to clarify the workings of the ordinance, which dated from his mayoralty, Giuliani barked, "Don't interrupt me!"
"Didn't he call me?" Koch marveled years later.
To be sure, Giuliani's abrasiveness has its political pluses. His personality doubtlessly was a factor for the 42 percent of Americans who told a Gallup Poll in mid-October that they were more inclined to vote for Giuliani because of his tough leadership style, as well as for the 8 percent who said they were drawn to him because of his messy personal and family life -- including an unnerving 3 percent who said that his foibles made them "much more" likely to support him. Giuliani's campaign has begun telling Web surfers about his years as a federal prosecutor, when he was the scourge of Wall Street hotshots paraded out of their offices in handcuffs. Indeed, Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, figures that Giuliani's manner will prove an advantage in the Republican primaries. Some people "will vote for him, will like him," Cizik said, because "he's known for kicking a-- ."
In New Hampshire, however, the home of the first presidential primary, Katherine Prudhomme-O'Brien isn't so sure. At a town meeting this summer in Derry, the conservative gadfly asked Giuliani why Americans should be loyal to him if his own children weren't. A week earlier, Giuliani's 17-year-old daughter, Caroline, had expressed online support for Obama, of the wrong political party, after 21-year-old son, Andrew, told The New York Times that he hadn't spoken to his father for "a decent amount of time" because of "a little problem" with Wife No. 3. Prudhomme-O'Brien said later she had asked the question at the behest of her nephew, then 17, a Long Islander who identified with Andrew and his mother, Wife No. 2.
"Leave my family alone," Giuliani snapped.
"I felt he was telling me to sit down and shut up and go away," Prudhomme-O'Brien recounted in an interview. "I don't know about this guy. There's too many red flags." Many of her neighbors, she thinks, will oppose Giuliani because of his turbulent personal life, couching it as a difference in moral values.
His checkered past hasn't noticeably hindered Giuliani's candidacy so far. A September survey in New Hampshire by Franklin Pierce University and a Boston television station found that favorable feelings toward Giuliani among Republicans had slipped a little since the spring but still stood at 75 percent, second only to respondents' affection for Mitt Romney, the ex-governor next door. Also in September, a poll of Republicans nationwide by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press ranked Giuliani as the friendliest and most compassionate candidate.
But the support levels may mean nothing more than that most voters don't know him yet. "I would think that the closer we get to him becoming the Republican candidate, the wider and more concise the magnifying glass would become," Rangel, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, said in an interview. "I cannot think, in my lifetime, of a more polarizing public figure in New York than Rudolph Giuliani.... He would be a vulnerable candidate."
Already, he has shown signs of decline. The proportion of Americans who think of Giuliani favorably, which soared to 77 percent in a Gallup survey last December and stayed above 60 percent for most of the spring, slipped to 49 percent by mid-October. Other polls suggest the pitfalls. One Gallup survey found that 45 percent of Americans would frown on a candidate with disaffected children; the only factors that voters considered more damaging were being a septuagenarian or a former lobbyist. In Florida, a swing state, a Quinnipiac survey found that 31 percent of Republicans (and 29 percent of Democrats) would be less likely to vote for a twice-divorced candidate.
Giuliani's position is that his private life is irrelevant to his performance in office, but some of his more New Yorkish traits may pose a greater danger. In taking a cellphone call from his wife mid-speech at the National Rifle Association, Giuliani meant "to prove he's human" but showed only that "he's rude" -- this from Curt Smith, a former speechwriter for the first President Bush and now a conservative talk-show host in upstate New York. Smith sees an electoral downside to Giuliani's bad manners: "It shows that he doesn't have the same values as a Middle American in Dayton, Ohio."
Potentially even more damaging politically is the sort of presidency that his mayoralty presaged. What Mayor Giuliani did unto squeegee men and turnstile leapers, his supporters suggest, President Giuliani would wreak upon terrorists.
But The Washington Monthlyrecently detailed how Giuliani's second term turned "rocky, as the personality flaws that people had sensed in his first term came to engulf New York City politics." A quadrennium of successful crime fighting deteriorated into ugly episodes of police brutality, a war against hotdog vendors and jaywalkers, a failed lawsuit against a Brooklyn museum for showing anti-religious art, a habit of surrounding himself with yes-men, a penchant for secrecy, and the driving away of a police commissioner and a schools chancellor for lack of deference. By 1998, when New York City voters were asked if they would cast a presidential ballot for Giuliani, 55 percent told Quinnipiac pollsters: Not a chance.
Another facet of Giuliani as an SOB could also undermine his chances for the presidency -- what Bruce Fein calls his "Napoleonic personality." The conservative activist, who served with him in the Reagan Justice Department, worries about Giuliani's appetite for unchecked power, in part because of his efforts after the terrorist attacks on New York to tack on three months to his expiring term. "Rudy's come across as someone who believes he should be the lion's share of government." Fein said. "Are you frightened by this exercise of power? Because it's a Napoleonic view of the world where [the objective] is to dominate and control everything." Such a mind-set could heighten the fears of Iraq-weary voters that Giuliani's bellicosity might lead to war with Iran.
Finally, consider the assessment of Giuliani offered to the London Sunday Times a few weeks after 9/11 by Howard Koeppel, a wealthy friend who lent the mayor a place to stay after Wife No. 2 evicted him: "If he feels he wants to do something, and it's not felonious, it's not a misdemeanor, then he doesn't care what people think." Doesn't this sound like the unpopular president Giuliani hopes to succeed?
Everyone remembers the old Hillary Rodham Clinton, the "buy-one-get-one-free" first spouse who struggled to reconcile the competing notions -- traditional versus feminist -- of her role. She was the high-powered lawyer who insulted stay-at-home moms (probably without meaning to) for their cookie-baking ways. Put in charge of her husband's overhaul of the nation's health care system, she adopted an us-against-them mentality, secretively plotting a radical restructuring of the medical cosmos with power over life and death, never bothering to solicit the cooperation of moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill, such as Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota, who might have lent a hand. The resulting fiasco guaranteed 13 years of inaction and counting, even as the problems that Clinton intended to fix went from bad to worse.
Clinton's difficulties in straddling her conflicting roles reached a nadir in the opening weeks of 1996. Just as her warm-and-fuzzy book on child-rearing, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us, was reaching the bookstores, "questions about Hillary's honesty overwhelmed her publicity campaign," author Sally Bedell Smith recounts in For Love of Politics, her recent book about the Clintons' marriage.
The mysterious appearance of Hillary's long-lost billing records, part of the Whitewater wannabe-scandal, prompted a subpoena from Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr and an appearance -- a first lady's first -- before a federal grand jury. As she made the round of talk shows to hawk her book, her hosts asked instead about Whitewater and the firings she had ordered -- a subordinate's memo had just been released -- in the White House travel office. When she was asked on CBS News' Sunday Morning whether she would ever run for president, she shot back, "Not in this lifetime!"
This was the hard-edged, polarizing Hillary Clinton, the one who discerned a "vast right-wing conspiracy" and served as its target. During the Clintons' roller-coaster years in the White House, her favorability ratings stayed consistently past 60 percent only after she became a victim of her husband's all-too-public philandering -- as "the wronged Hillary," said Stephen Hess, the veteran presidency-watcher at the Brookings Institution. This was the Hillary who stood by her man, just as Tammy Wynette had tunefully advised.
"Is there a New Hillary?" Hess wondered. To launch her own political career she chose a state where she had never lived, and took off on a much-publicized "listening tour" in hopes that New Yorkers would start to think of her as one of their own. In the Senate, she has chosen to be a workhorse, not a show horse, keeping her profile low, diligently building relationships with her colleagues across party lines, such as by working with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to enact medical benefits for National Guard troops and reservists.
"I am running to be president of the entire country," she said at the Democratic candidates' November 15 debate in Las Vegas. "You've got to look to find common ground."
As a presidential candidate, she has been hyperdisciplined, forever careful, always purposeful, perpetually cool and collected -- so much that she projects a scripted air. Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's The Daily Showmocked "the Cackle," the robotic guffaws she delivered -- unprovoked by the subject at hand -- on all five talk shows one Sunday in September.
Clinton's deliberate manner makes sense, given the problems she has suffered from spontaneity. Still, the carefulness has exacerbated the question that has simmered since she entered the national scene in 1992: Who is she? Is she a liberal or a moderate, Hillary Rodham or Hillary Rodham Clinton, a child of the 1960s or the savvy investor who studied The Wall Street Journal and made a bundle in cattle futures? Asked earlier this fall which team she would root for in the 2007 World Series if the Chicago Cubs, her childhood favorites, faced her adopted New York Yankees, she replied, "I would probably have to alternate sides."
"I may be the most famous person," she once said, "you really don't know."
Throughout it all, the public's affection for Clinton has been lukewarm. Her favorability rating peaked at 67 percent as 1998 expired, just after the House impeached her husband for lying about his extramarital escapades. For most of this year, her favorability has run below 50 percent, by Gallup's measure, as many as 7 percentage points below her unfavorability rating. In September both scores stood at 49 percent, but she subsequently improved her image a bit. Even after the October 30 debate, when her male rivals used her as their punching bag, her favorability slipped by just a single percentage point from her predebate score, to 52 percent.
As a candidate, Clinton has improved. She is less "cardboard" now in engaging with voters than during her 2000 Senate campaign, according to Miringoff, the Marist Institute pollster. But her continuing air of calculation: "Oh yeah, it's a problem," Miringoff said. "It's one of the reasons people don't like her."
The circumstances of Clinton's path-breaking candidacy may make her painstaking equivocations a necessary risk, however. In a Marist poll, 27 percent of Democrats named "strong leadership" as the quality they sought in a president, more than those who most wanted "change" or anything else. The need to prove herself as a strong leader and as a potential commander-in-chief perhaps explains Clinton's controversial votes for saber-rattling resolutions that ushered the nation into war in Iraq and might do the same in Iran. As she also tries to keep faith with her party's antiwar core, double-talk may be the price she must pay for looking tough.
Will it work? In a CNN poll after the Philadelphia debate, Clinton's margin over Obama shrank from 30 percentage points to 19, while a Gallup survey found her sizable lead undented. The extent to which she -- because of all the baggage she brings -- polarizes the electorate makes her political balancing act more daunting.
In a recent Zogby poll, cited by candidate Christopher Dodd at the debate, 50 percent of Americans said they would "never" vote for Clinton, earning her top place in that category among all candidates, Democrat or Republican. (Dennis Kucinich ranked second at 49 percent, and Giuliani was ninth with 43 percent.) A poll of Montanans found that 61 percent would not consider voting for Clinton; in Colorado and Nevada, states that the Democrats can hope to win, more than half of respondents said the same. Nationally, of the 44 percent who recently told Gallup surveyors that they "will definitely not vote" for Clinton, a quarter of them explained they simply don't like her, the most common reason offered.
Clinton might attract some of these diehards if she were more likable, but her personality may not matter a lot -- and she can thank her unfaithful husband for that.
"He wasn't well liked," either in 1992 or in 1996, according to Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center. Nearly as many Americans viewed him unfavorably as favorably, even while they elected him twice. In the wake of his sex scandal and impeachment trial in 1998, he stunned pollsters when two-thirds of the citizenry said they thought he was doing a fine job as president, even though only a third considered him an honest and upstanding man. "You can approve of a president's performance," said George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M, "and not like him."
An Obnoxious 2008
Once ensconced in the Oval Office, an SOB may have certain advantages in getting things done, especially a president bent on change. Lyndon Johnson, apt to pick up his beagle by the ears, was known to humiliate his advisers and to strong-arm recalcitrant lawmakers -- and usually succeeded in getting his way. If presidential power, as scholar Richard E. Neustadt professed, is the power to persuade, LBJ's habit of intimidating his enemies -- and his allies -- helped to enact two landmark civil-rights laws and launch a war on poverty, even as it may have accelerated an ill-fated war in Vietnam.
Honey can work just as well, however, for a president trying to shake things up. Reagan used his geniality to strike a working relationship, if not quite a friendship, with the equally affable Tip O'Neill, the House speaker and Massachusetts Democrat, who controlled the opposite party's last bastion of power. Reagan's easy-on-the-ears persona allayed the public's fears about the dramatic changes he had in mind and prompted many voters to press their lawmakers to go along.
Likability also helps presidential aspirants. "Americans like to like their candidates," noted Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute. Still, an election isn't a referendum but a choice, commonly between the lesser of evils, and things other than affection often matter more to voters. Consider the 1964 election, in which Barry Goldwater challenged Johnson. "LBJ was not a likable character," said Robert Dallek, a former presidential historian at Boston University, "but Goldwater was nuts." In 1992, fears of an economic recession trumped the public's doubts about Bill Clinton as a man.
"The candidate with the strongest personal appeal is often the one who loses," according to Martin Wattenberg, a political scientist at the University of California (Irvine).
In the wake of September 11, the issues of state are presumed to matter more and candidates' personality less. If the 2008 election becomes "a vote for change, I don't think that likability will matter," said Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Denver. "This is the year for an obnoxious person."
And voters may well elect one. Imagine, if you dare, the dynamics of a general election that pits Rudy Giuliani against Hillary Clinton. Their deficits of likability might well negate one another, much like offsetting penalties in a football game. But if voters perceive the candidates as "two New York liberals running against each other," their differences in personalities might count for a lot, according to political scientist David Redlawsk, the polling director at the University of Iowa. Cizik, the evangelical spokesman, anticipates that the abrasiveness that may benefit Giuliani during the Republican primaries could hurt him in the fall. Clinton has maintained a modest lead over Giuliani in most, though not all, of the recent head-to-head polls.
What both front-runners should fear most is the potential for their personality shortcomings to evolve during the coming months into questions of character. "Character has always played a role in presidential campaigns," Edwards of Texas A&M pointed out -- as long ago as Thomas Jefferson's, Andrew Jackson's, and Grover Cleveland's. Voters in 2008 will need to feel comfortable, above all, with the prospect of a candidate's finger on the nuclear button.
"Character is fate," Koch preached.
As Richard Nixon, for one, ultimately learned to his sorrow. The New Nixon narrowly won the presidency over Humphrey in 1968 and smashingly over George McGovern in 1972. Yet the Old Nixon was still in charge, and it was this Nixon, the devious and vicious Nixon, the furtive conspirator -- "He would have been a great man had somebody loved him," Henry Kissinger supposedly said -- who sired the Watergate scandal that cut his presidency short.
Could a resurrected Nixon win the presidency in 2008 if voters knew what sort of SOB he truly was? Probably, answers Alonzo Hamby, a presidential historian at Ohio University -- and maybe by a larger margin than he did 40 years before.