By Tim Hames (THE TIMES, 12/02/07):
It has been a mere 97 days since this writer’s last prediction on American politics (that the Republicans would not lose control of the Senate) proved so badly wrong that he was obliged to honour his pledge to eat his words with a dash of Tabasco sauce.
This was not without compensations. For one, I received a sympathetic letter from Paul C. P. McIlhenny, president of the company that makes Tabasco, along with a bottle of it large enough to last a lifetime. Next, the inept Democrats have already been so incompetent and incoherent since securing their majorities on Capitol Hill that they must secretly be wishing that they had lost.
More personal humiliation is invited. On Saturday Senator Barack Obama entered the battle for the White House. He did so to the backdrop of a media swoon. He trumpeted the themes of his recent volume, The Audacity of Hope. That his candidature is essentially audacious and relies an awful lot on hope was ignored by most of those who reported it. Someone has to point out that this balloon has hype not helium inside it. I will do so.
Mr Obama’s claim to the White House is ridiculous for three interconnected reasons.
First, we have seen this sort of thing so many times before. The American press craves the idea of a serious “horse race” so much that it will award a lame mule with a fear of flying the status of Pegasus.
The surreal idea of President Obama (2008) follows in the dubious footsteps of President Howard Dean (2004), President Bill Bradley (2000), President Steve Forbes (1996) and President Paul Tsongas (1992). In fairness to Mr Bradley, who may have made a decent occupant of the Oval Office, he was not a risible figure to aspire to inherit George Washington’s mantle. All of the rest were.
Secondly, Mr Obama is spectacularly underqualified to be President. He has been in the Senate for 25 months. There are probably craftsman repairing things in that building who have been there longer. The notion that being no more than an enthusiastic tourist in the American capital is the same thing as serving an apprenticeship to become the most powerful person on the planet is profoundly disturbing.
The United States once had a race problem in that black people were effectively excluded from the political process. Forty years on it has the reverse dilemma — those who would dismiss a white figure because he was unprepared for the most prominent national position will not do the same for a black one.
The third — and by far the most worrying — part of this saga is the way that Mr Obama rebuts this criticism on the rare occasions that he is confronted with it. When he was pressed in a recent interview for detailed positions he replied that, unlike others in the 2008 struggle, he had already expressed himself in two books that had sold well.
Extensive research confirms that Kermit the Frog has also released two tomes that attracted a substantial share of dollars (Before You Leap and One Frog Can Make a Difference). As far as I am aware, Kermit is not in line for the Democratic nomination next time, but since this is a party that has put up John Kerry and Al Gore that cannot be discounted. And Kermit has been on the scene for several decades — unlike Mr Obama.
To which, the robust retort from the Obama camp is the “c” word. He has charisma. This is championed as the answer to Senator Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner.
Now I know that there are those who consider Mrs Clinton to be Lady Macbeth revisited. In several respects she is not my type, either. But note the following. She is astute. She has shown in six years that she is an extremely capable senator. She is undoubtedly qualified for the huge responsibility that she seeks. She might not be as effective an electoral politician as her husband, but she has more discipline, principle and resolve and would be a better President than him. The idea that she could be usurped by some passing American Idol is outrageous.
Then there is the boring stuff, namely the data. Mr Obama is supposedly sweeping the nation, if not the globe, perhaps the Solar System. Despite this, he is, after months of publicity that a Hollywood star would die for, miles behind Mrs Clinton in all national polls for the Democratic prize and is far from establishing a lead in Iowa or New Hampshire, the Alpha and Beta of presidential primary politics. Yet, never mind the numbers, who cares about statistics when charisma is lurking out there?
Charisma is the most overrated attribute in politics. This is not to deny that some eminent statesmen — Roosevelt, Churchill, Kennedy — have exhibited the quality. They all, nonetheless, acquired it alongside experience. Franklin Roosevelt had no great reputation as a speaker before his election. Winston Churchill was mocked by a contemporary for spending hours rehearsing his impromptu addresses. John. F. Kennedy was scarcely Cicero until he raided the family fortune to hire writing talent.
The reality, on either side of the Atlantic, is that — while personal charisma is the icing on the cake — proven competence is the cake itself. For every Sir Richard Branson who runs a business well, there must be a hundred, probably a thousand, duller chief executives who are huge assets for their corporations. Would Labour in the 1940s have been better off with a Bevan than an Attlee, or the Conservatives in the 1980s with a Heseltine and not a Thatcher? There are but three aspirants to the presidency who have records that command respect — Senator John McCain, Rudolph Giuliani and Mrs Clinton. The rest are asking the voters to gamble wildly on their personality.
Not all of those whose appeal is based on charisma are cads, chancers or charlatans, but, as the pollsters would put it, such a supposition is within the margin of error. Mr Obama has an intriguing life story but should not and will not (yet) be President.
If I am wrong, there is, courtesy of Mr McIlhenny, lots of Tabasco sauce ready and waiting.