Why Can't Candidates Be Celebrities?

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Mary Altaffer / AP

John McCain speaks during a town-hall meeting in Erie, Pa., on Aug. 11

John McCain's campaign has been working overtime to ridicule Barack Obama as "the One," the rock-star celebrity with adoring fans, the politician with the chutzpah to announce his candidacy in a speech about Abraham Lincoln. So it was a bit surprising to watch the opening of McCain's town-hall meeting in York, Pa., on Tuesday.

The event began with footage of Winston Churchill's push for resistance to the Nazi menace: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender!" Then came footage of McCain's push for George W. Bush's re-election: "Keep that faith. Keep your courage. Stick together. Stay strong. Do not yield. Do not flinch. Stand up. ... We're Americans, and we'll never surrender!" There was a snippet from Teddy Roosevelt, then McCain, then more Churchill, then more McCain. And then the theme from Rocky announced the candidate's entrance, McCain's Straight Talk Express bus drove into the York Expo Center, and thousands of adoring fans cheered.

You know what? It was pretty cool. It's a good thing for presidential candidates to aspire to greatness; we don't want them making speeches about Chester A. Arthur or airing old footage of Herbert Hoover. Maybe it's egotistical for Obama and McCain to place themselves in such rarified company, but the next presidential candidate without an ego will be the first. And if their fans adore them, well, that seems like a good thing too.

What's not such a good thing is the way campaign culture tries to slap down candidates who don't seem to fit the definition of an "ordinary American." One would think the presidency would require a rather extraordinary American, but modern candidates are apparently supposed to pretend to be just like us.

This is silly enough when candidates are attacked for their wealth or supposedly élitist habits; it's hard to see how McCain's multiple mansions or $500 shoes detract from his economic plans, and just about impossible to see how Obama's decision to vacation near his grandmother in Hawaii undercuts his claim to economic leadership. But ever since the wealthy Whig William Henry Harrison's brilliant "log cabin and hard cider" campaign, candidates have tried to strike an Everyman pose, and missteps that have made them look "out of touch" — like George H.W. Bush checking his watch during an economic debate, or John Kerry windsurfing off Nantucket, or even Bill Clinton of Hope, Ark., getting an expensive haircut — have created major political headaches.

This is terribly shortsighted; hero-to-the-everyman Franklin D. Roosevelt probably wore fancier shoes than McCain does, and it's a safe bet that he was an even worse bowler than Obama is. But punishing candidates for wealth or élitism is still less crazy than punishing candidates for talent. The McCain campaign has been mocking Obama's rhetorical skills, as if speech-making were not a job requirement for the presidency. McCain's latest Web ad ridicules Obama for inspiring passion among his supporters, as if real Presidents were supposed to make Americans completely unenthusiastic. The candidates have both accused each other of being celebrities and media darlings, and they're both right; that's because many Americans and many reporters admire them.

The candidates and their consultants deserve some of the blame for this political race to the bottom; so do the trivia-obsessed media. But campaigns pander for a reason, and McCain's event in York was a reminder that voters deserve their share of blame too.

McCain began the town-hall meeting with an impassioned message about Georgia, urging the crowd to care about a "tiny little democracy, far, far away" that might seem irrelevant to their day-to-day lives. "History is often made in remote and obscure places," McCain said. Even if you don't share McCain's bellicose ideas about Russia, there was something inspiring about his appeal to the conscience of the crowd, his insistence that the struggles of Georgians should be the concern of Americans. But the audience just listened quietly, offering only a few subdued golf-claps — until McCain mentioned Georgia's oil pipeline, and called the conflict a new reminder that it's time to do something about higher gas prices in America. Then the crowd erupted and gave McCain a standing ovation.

Soon it was time for questions. Nobody asked what McCain planned to do for the Georgians. No, most of the questions were about what he could do for Pennsylvanians — specifically, the Pennsylvanians asking the questions. The owner of a real estate firm wanted to know what McCain would do about real estate values. A farmer asked what McCain would do for farmers. A "young, hardworking American" asked what McCain would do to preserve Social Security for young, hardworking Americans. A veteran asked what McCain would do about veterans' benefits. Even the few questions that weren't strictly about the questioners were hardly unrelated — a teacher asked what McCain would do to bring technology into schools, a military recruit asked what McCain expected to happen to the military, and a conservative asked if McCain could reassure conservatives. McCain's slogan is "Country First," but his audience was all about Me First.

McCain dutifully gave the questioners the responses they were looking for, trying his best to show that he could feel their pain. "I probably should have mentioned what you all already know: These are tough times," he said. It was hard not to wonder whether a man who endured such extraordinary pain for more than five years in Hanoi was really as troubled by dropping real estate values as he tried to suggest. But his supporters seemed to appreciate his rather ordinary answers, and they certainly appreciated his remarkable life story; when he was done, he was mobbed by adoring fans.

Wait: A remarkable life? Adoring fans? Clearly, he's unfit to serve.