In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the President of the Imperial Galactic Government is:
[A]lways a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it.
Okay, so to avoid conspiratorial lines here, the claim is that in modern history the selected president has been the one which is perceived by the electorate as more fun.
That is, toe-to-toe, the one that seemed not smarter, kinder, fiercer, or any other factor could win. They had to be more fun. And I’m judging this from Eisenhower forward. It’s probably true going back, but modern history is easier for me to get a grasp on.
Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower v. Adlai Stevenson II (1952, 1956)
People were happy to vote Eisenhower, as Stevenson won the nickname, “egghead.” Eisenhower had the slogan, “I like Ike.”
John F. Kennedy v. Richard M. Nixon (1960)
A televised debate made it clear that Kennedy was a hell of a lot more fun than the stodgy Nixon.
Lyndon B. Johnson v. Barry Goldwater (1964)
Goldwater said, in 1961, “[S]ometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.” The problem was, he wasn’t serious. It would have been a massive undertaking, and certainly a lot of fun. Johnson, for his part, one-upped Goldwater. He promised to annihilate little girls with lackluster math skills picking flowers in the famous “Daisy Girl” advertisement (see Wikipedia: File: Commercial-LBJ1964ElectionAdDaisyGirl.ogv) (actually, he offered a choice of either loving each other or annihilation, but it was a really fun choice).
Richard M. Nixon v. Hubert Humphrey (1968), Richard M. Nixon v. George McGovern (1972)
In the years since 1960, Nixon wasn’t able to make himself more fun. But the democrats nominated a couple of duds (in the fun department). In 1968 George Wallace ran, which added to the trouble. He was definitely no fun. But the base perverseness of his campaign made the choice of fun a bit wonky. It was like offering someone a choice between soda, water, and pureed cauliflower with a garnish of pet hamster.
People still choose soda over water, and all the more when they worry that the hamster might have been drinking from the tap.
Plus, Nixon ran a “Law and Order” ticket, which always reminds the electorate of the kids’ game, “cops and robbers.” They’re thinking, “Nixon’s going to give us all squirt guns and bandanas and little tinfoil badges!”
Most of all, the Vietnam war loomed large. Humphrey did not call for an immediate end to the conflict, and so he drew the majority of anti-war protests. That turned people off. Who wants four years of protests? Nobody.
On to 1972. George McGovern spoiled the dreams of the nation when he fired his initial pick for vice president. The poor man had undergone psychological treatment years before. In the ultimate move to continue the stigmatization of mental illness, he was deemed unfit and thrown by the wayside.
But McGovern was also seen as too extreme. People don’t find extreme particularly fun unless things get so bad that they just want something to keep their minds off of everything. While McGovern promised to end the war, and the people wanted the country to get out of there, Nixon was seen as the choice for a more drawn out withdrawal.
One other factor Nixon had going for him was the 1952 “Checkers” speech, in which he blamed a dog for giving him bad advice on managing a political expense reimbursement fund. It stuck in the national psyche, and talking dogs have a lasting value in politics.
Jimmy Carter v. Gerald Ford (1976)
Just in time for the Bicentennial Nixon resigned, and the public was looking forward to a formal impeachment trial. Ford ruined that, by pardoning the disgraced former president. We had in our grasp the greatest domestic spectacle of the 20th century, ruined. That was enough to sour the campaign.
Ronald Reagan v. Jimmy Carter (1980), Ronald Reagan v. Walter Mondale (1984)
An real live actor. Running for president. Carter didn’t stand a chance.
Mondale was seen as too liberal, and he was not a member of the Screen Actors Guild, which Reagan had presided over.
George H.W. Bush v. Michael Dukakis (1988)
Bush had been the director of the CIA. A spook in the White House. Or Dukakis, who let rabid criminals roam free. Interestingly, one of Bush’s ads against Dukakis criticized him for not cleaning up the pollution in Boston Harbor. A republican hitting a democrat for environmental recklessness? How far we have come since those days.
Bill Clinton v. George H.W. Bush (1992), Bill Clinton v. Bob Dole (1996)
It’s Bill Clinton. Both Bush and Dole looked incredibly stiff by comparison. Even today, Clinton is the funnest president anyone can remember.
George W. Bush v. Al Gore (2000), George W. Bush v. John Kerry (2004)
This was nearly the exception to the rule. It took the fun meter of the SCOTUS to bend the American will to fun. Al Gore, for all his virtues, was not nearly as fun as Bush. Bush had that twinkle in his eye of a school-aged miscreant. Someone who might, at any moment, pull down someone’s pants. Legend has it that they had a closet converted into a pantsing room, with mannequins and a full range of bottoms to choose from, just to keep his urge at bay.
Kerry was stiffer than Gore. He may have seemed more presidential than Bush, but the yuk fest was just getting started. It was close. Bush had squandered a great deal of his fun capital in two ill-conceived, expensive wars. But Kerry didn’t bring anything fun to the table. Not even a rubber chicken! It was his race to lose, and he lost.
Barack Obama v. John McCain (2008)
Obama rose quickly, and in 2008 found himself nominated for the top. The war in Iraq was a major issue in the campaign, and a lot of time was spent debating which side would be better suited to handle the nation in the new era. Then the economy went haywire.
But ultimately, I don’t think anyone can make the case that McCain was more fun than Obama.
Barack Obama v. Mitt Romney (2012)
The future isn’t written yet. But this looks to be a repeat of 2008. Can anyone honestly say that Romney is more fun than Obama?
Maybe fun isn’t the only factor in elections, but I honestly believe that, at least since 1952, the winner in each presidential election has been more fun a persona than the loser. There have been close elections. Ones where a bore nearly topped a firecracker. But the shiny ones have prevailed, even when it took the courts to see to it.
I think the issues in politics are important. But whether they are the most important thing, not when it comes to our collective future, but when it comes to which human is elected, seems debatable.