Shopping for Leadership

Published Friday, Nov. 23, 2007 in The Register-Guard.

Robert Frost once groused: “Anymore, people don’t think; they vote.” The poet was alarmed at what passed for civic discourse. If he lived today, he might update his prognosis this way: “Anymore people don’t vote; they shop.” And so we arrive at this, the most popular shopping day of the year, with a dozen different models to choose from for the next president of the United States.

The primary election season used to begin in late January, so campaigns could keep a low profile until after Christmas. But now the state contests begin in early January, so the campaigns are already in full swing. If Christmas has swallowed up Thanksgiving, the presidential campaign now threatens to overwhelm Christmas, at least in Iowa and New Hampshire. “Deck the halls with campaign posters….”

The “smart shoppers” among us have already begun to compare features, estimate value, and bring home the model they feel fits them best. We know the drill. Is it sufficiently new and improved? Is it a name I can trust? Will it include features I don’t need? Will it save me money?

We focus on specifics — “specs,” as they say. If they’re trivial, they’re also tangible. Choosing a model that will upgrade the H-1B visa allotment for FY ‘08 is no different than trading up from a 1080i interlaced model to a 1080p progressive scan HDTV. We learn the difference, even though it will make no difference, at least to us. That’s what good shoppers do.

We fill our heads and shopping lists with reams of specs, but in the end we buy what we know. Marketers call it “brand loyalty.”

Americans equate familiarity with reliability, and Republicans have complied. They always offer a familiar name on their presidential ticket. Except for 1964, Republican ballots have included a Nixon, Bush or Dole in every election since 1952.

Americans want a president who is bold and forceful, so shorter names win elections. The last Republican nominee with a longer name than his Democratic opponent was Goldwater in 1964. He lost. Before that, Eisenhower won, but with the snappy slogan “I like Ike.” And he beat a name only slightly shorter and much less familiar: Adlai Stevenson. (Who names their son Adlai?) Since then, Republicans have never fielded the candidate with the longer name.

The last president elected with three syllables in his last name was Kennedy in 1960. Twice Democrats have run three-syllable candidates since and both got trounced: McGovern and Dukakis.

I would agree with you that this is meaningless trivia, except for the time when my Toyota Tercel broke down on a country road in North Carolina. I was fortunate to find a mechanic who could repair my six-year-old vehicle. He didn’t stock Toyota parts, but he called a friend who did. I listened in. “I need a distributor cap for a Toyota Ter-Kel, whatever the hell that is.” In 1990, the Tercel was the second most popular model for the fourth largest auto manufacturer spending untold millions in advertising, but the name was mispronounced by a professional auto mechanic. People won’t vote for a name they can’t pronounce.

Yes, Obama’s campaign is doomed. It’s too bad, too.

Barack Obama, 46, is six years younger than any other major-party candidate. He’s the only candidate not yet receiving mailings from AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.

The first of the Baby Boomers began officially retiring last month, but the leaders of our generation show no inclination to do the same. How can we exit the stage with grace and confidence, when our leaders won’t show us how? If our leaders insist on being tireless, where do we look when we’re tired? Won’t we be happier knowing that Bill Clinton can slow down with satisfaction, rather than launch a midlife career change, a la Al Gore? How can we miss them if they won’t go away? At least the old men still working in the U.S. Senate don’t look like they’re doing real work.

Baby Boomers will soon enough stop shopping, if only because their feet hurt. In 1960, Kennedy exulted that “the torch has been passed to a new generation.” Young people danced in the streets and our optimistic hearts skipped a beat. Now when our heart skips a beat, we take a pill. The torch has burned to the nub and our fingers are feeling uncomfortably warm. We no longer dance; we stroll — using the shopping cart we’re pushing to keep us steady.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is a Baby Boomer himself. Readers of all ages may review and comment on past and future columns at his blog, right here.