The people we elect as leaders aren’t supposed to be one of us. They’re supposed to be the smartest, craftiest, most astute person in the room.
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Years ago, comedian David Chappelle appeared on Inside the Actor’s Studio, and said something that has long stuck with me: He said when he was new to stand-up, still learning it as a teen, he’d go to the local comedy club on two nights every week.
One of those nights was open mic, where novices and amateurs would try their hand. Chappelle said he’d see folks bomb constantly. The other night was for established stand-up comics. He’d go on these nights to learn the ropes. Figure out how to write.
He said the tandem of these two nights taught him how to work at his craft. The open mic, the amateurs, illuminated what doesn’t work. Sometimes, we have to see how things don’t work in order to appreciate the value of when they do work.
Presidential power is maybe one of the best examples of this concept. It’s fascinating how much we, as citizens, fail to understand it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Average Joe/Jane bemoan the “artificial” nature of presidential power.
“Why would they poll vacation spots?”
“Why would they focus group test speeches?”
“Why can’t the president be normal like us?”
Many Americans can’t admit their desire to have a president who can share a beer doesn’t jive with their craving for competent, steady leadership.
Presidents are not “normal” people. The Oval Office is not a “normal” work environment. All of this—every bit—is abnormal as hell. To be president, no matter how much good is your heart, you have to be arrogant enough to believe destiny has called you to service.
No “average” person—not you, not me, not the vast majority of folks you know—has that kind of special arrogance that is required. It’s that special arrogance that permits presidents to competently make life-and-death decisions that would make any of the rest of us crumble.
We want a president who can make decisions of incomprehensible stress but also relate to us as mere mortals. We want a president who can shoulder the stress but demonstrate enough humanity to make us believe they’re not full sociopaths.
Not only that but proving they can relate to us mere mortals means placating an infinite variety of constituencies. And no one is ever truly happy. They must be all things to all people all the time.
You get the paradox here? A president has to be all things to all people in order to be someone very, very few of any of us could be. That’s why you get focus groups testing speeches ad nauseam and polls asking what vacation spot Americans prefer their president visit.
That’s why you get even the most authentic presidential candidates still hiring consultants to figure out how best to be “relatable” in their messaging to the widest possible net of Americans.
It’s why every president in modern history, at times, gives off at least a little vibe of being inauthentic or like they’re acting. All of the bullshit pageantry, all of the seemingly insincere campaigning, the kissing babies, the shit some of us roll our eyes at.
It’s why I call bullshit when I hear an average American say we need “one of us” in the White House. It’s why I roll my eyes at the genre of movies in which a beer-drinking Average Joe magically becomes president and lectures Congress.
We are now witnessing the Open Mic Night of presidential power. We are now seeing an amateur bomb their set. We have been so spoiled with professional politicians, regardless of their views, understanding nuance and applying it to their office.
I may not have liked President Nixon—I believed he was an awful person—but even he, in his profound weaknesses, understood the terrible power of the office and the chaos that must be juggled competently.
Every president, Dem or GOP, has understood why you have to be a little inauthentic to get shit done. Why Average Joe doesn’t cut it. We need Average Joe, from the local bar, in the Oval Office like we need a hole in the head.
The country is now seeing what those of us who have studied presidents have known all along: when Average Joe gets power, things fall apart.
So, here is a hope I have: Should we get through this, we’ll have the benefit of witnessing Open Mic Night. What doesn’t work. We’ll better appreciate the inhuman characteristics of a president, and we will demand excellence of those who seek the office.
We’ll stop needing our president to be JUST LIKE US and we’ll leave the beer drinking to nights with our friends. 99.9999% can’t be Dave Chappelle. I can’t relate to his genius, and I don’t need that to appreciate him. So, why the president?
I don’t need to have a beer with my president. I don’t need them to be my next door neighbor.
I want the smartest person in the class. I want the nerd who gives a shit. I want the girl sitting in front who keeps raising her hand because she did her homework and has the answers.
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