Watching modern American politics can be a disheartening and demoralizing experience. We already equate the term “politician” with someone who is – pretty much by default – a liar, a person who lacks integrity, and a ruthless opportunist who will say whatever the polls require to get elected. More disturbing yet, it seems as if these appellations are usually well deserved. We don’t trust these people, we don’t connect with these people; heck, we usually don’t even like these people. Yet it’s these same people that we install as leaders who will control the fate of our Nation. That’s terrifying.
All we have to do to lose hope is look at this present election season. If you believe the news, we are essentially being asked to choose between a thug and a pervert as our next president. We’ll start with the Democrats’ nominee, Hillary Clinton. According to media reports, she and her husband (a former president) have been using their non-profit organization to trade political favors for cash and enrich themselves and their campaigns for office. She herself, when acting as Secretary of State, improperly used a private e-mail server to handle sensitive documents that may have resulted in state secrets falling into the hands of foreign governments. She may even be responsible for American deaths, to go by the Benghazi story.
What about the Republicans’ nominee, Donald Trump? The media sure loves to sensationalize him! If you listen to them, he is a sexual predator who has assaulted women, objectified them, and spoken of them in the crudest possible terms. And just try getting a journalist to let up on his decision to not release his tax returns – “what is he hiding?” the media wants to know.
Of course, both candidates deny and/or offer defenses for each of these allegations, to the point of making themselves look pure and unassailable by the time they’re done. But I don’t want to get too far into that, because that’s not what this post is about. Right or wrong, guilty or innocent, the point is that these people are portrayed to us as pure scum by a news media delighted to air their dirty laundry and rake in the ratings telling us how hopeless we are as a country because one of these demons is going to lead us no matter what. That’s what I want to talk about today.
Believe it or not, politics used to be almost respectable in this country. Dare I say it, there used to be some integrity and moral character to the process – or, at least, to the people involved in it. Take, for example Abraham Lincoln, whom most Americans today would regard as a radically successful person. It wasn’t easy for him. Early in his life, in 1833, he suffered a severe business failure. Two years later, a woman he loved very much passed away. One year after that, he experienced a nervous breakdown. Lincoln bounced back from each of these setbacks: around the same time (1833 – 36), he was appointed Postmaster of New Salem and Deputy Surveyor of Sangamon County.
This is also about when Lincoln had political success in being elected to the Illinois State Legislature, though his career as a politician would be fraught with challenges as well. He lost his bid to be Speaker of the House, was defeated for nomination for Congress, and even failed in his run for the US Senate – twice. Later, he ironically lost his bid to be nominated for Vice President. But none of that – especially that last bit – mattered, did it? Lincoln went on to win the presidency, and through the same perseverance and strength of character that had gotten him through his life up to that point, he ultimately brought perhaps the single most despicable institution in our nation’s history to its knees.
Political campaigns used to mean something, too – something more than just who got elected. For instance, do you remember when Disney mounted a presidential campaign? It happened, first in 1968, then with increased vigor in ’72. Drawings were held at Sears stores to choose delegates for the Children’s Party, whose convention was ultimately held at Walt Disney World. In the end, perhaps the cuddliest candidate of them all, Winnie the Pooh was nominated to run for the big office. Pooh ran on a generous platform that promised free ice cream cones and “hunny in every pot”. Go on, try to imagine him saying that last line in his distinctive voice, without smiling. I’ll wait.
After receiving the nomination, Pooh held a three-day campaign rally at Disneyland to drum up support (and entertain the kids). Following the rally, he traveled with his official campaign advisers – Tigger and Eeyore – across the country by train. A locomotive’s whistle would signal his arrival; on the Pooh Express’ very first stop, in Barstow, thousands of people had come with their children to see the candidate. Pooh performed a song and dance routine to the delight of all in attendance, as he did on each stop in his two-week campaign tour. People who went along for the ride recall one of the more memorable stops, an unscheduled one in New Mexico. The train was set to pass right through a small town of about 200 people near Santa Fe, but when Pooh and his entourage were informed that – despite the hour of 1:30 AM and thick snow flurries covering the ground – the train tracks were lined with people who had braved the elements hoping to get a glimpse of the train, the candidate insisted on an impromptu stop and show, to thank the people for their support.
Pooh lost his bid for the presidency to Richard Nixon, largely because most of the Disney character’s supporters were below legal voting age. But in a bigger sense, Winnie the Pooh was a winner that year, just as he was in ’76 and ’80 when he also tried and was not successful. But again, each time he was no failure.
I do wish we could go back to a time like that, when the presidential race could be about something other than power and cynicism, and could be used to demonstrate human integrity and to make people happy. Maybe, one day, we can see that again. In the meantime, there just might be more than one race in which Winnie the Pooh – or his friends, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, each of whom have also launched presidential bids in the past – would a fine write-in.