Friday, November 30, 2007

Of Teenagers, Despots, Truth, and Strength

Forget about a YouTube presidential debate. Let's have a presidential debate with questions asked by teenagers.

Teenagers are keenly observant and have excellent bullshit detectors. That's why the youth center where I work had our teenaged members conduct the job interviews for our new teen coordinator, asking their own questions and giving us their assessments of the applicants.

That is also why, in a high school auditorium in New Hampshire last week, Barack Obama was asked whether he ever tried drugs. This was not just a question about marijuana. Teenagers ask frank questions to measure your willingness to level with them.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for president, he spun one of his most infamous Clintonisms: "When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and didn't like it. I didn't inhale and I didn't try it again." If anyone in America bought this story, they weren't teenagers.

Here's Obama's answer in November 2007: "There were times when I got into drinking, experimenting with drugs. There was a stretch of time where I did not really apply myself...It's not something I'm proud of. It was a mistake as a young man."

So - he inhaled, right? "The point was to inhale. That was the point."

This is a good answer for reasons having nothing to do with marijuana. A candidate for president is asked a question about personal indiscretions, he admits to one while omitting unseemly details, and treats it as a teaching moment for young people instead of making some cheesy evasion.

During campaigns, I watch the candidates for clues about how they would address their constituents and how they view leadership. To what extent might this respectful and candid answer, uttered before a room of teenagers, say something about how Obama views the presidency?

A Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, might have revealed something of himself when he commented about Obama's answer about marijuana:

"I agree with the sentiment that nobody's perfect and most of us, if not all of us, in our youthful years have engaged in various indiscretions we wouldn't want to have paraded in the front of a newspaper. On the other hand if we're running for president, I think it's important for us not to go into details about the weaknesses and our own failings as young people for the concern that we open kids thinking that it's ok for them."

Mitt Romney's campaign theme is strength, strength, strength. He will be the toughest on drugs, on immigration, on security, on terrorists. He's campaigning to be elected America's strongman. He remarked on Obama's dialogue by saying a candidate should not be too candid about their past - and, presumably, he felt Obama was being too candid.

Romney the Strong is revealing the ragged edge of his views on what is "presidential." It might not be "unpresidential" to make mistakes in youth, but it is definitely NOT "presidential" to admit to them. Of his own indiscretions, not that he was admitting to any, he said he would adopt President Bush's strategy of silence.

He didn't say that in front of teens. Teens would have rolled their eyes at him. Teenagers know well that when an adult says, "I tried marijuana and it sucks, don't do it," they are not endorsing it. You can fool a teen once you've earned their trust, but they're not this dumb.

I'm not suggesting that the presidential candidates should clutter up the fake debates with personal exposees - please, no. I am only noting that one of candidates for president does not view candidness and honesty (when coupled with a positive message) as a "presidential" quality.

Romney the Strong would prefer to cover up the traces of inconstancy, of flaws and weakness. The President must be Strong. Presumably, this would apply more urgently while serving as President. Presumably, mistakes would also need to be covered over, kept from Congress and the public. Errors in judgment or military strategy, violations of international conventions, measures that violate the Constitution, might also have to be covered over so that the Strong President can do what needs to be done.

It is especially interesting, coming from Romney, since he has famously changed his mind about a number of issues. And I would hope so! Having lived longer, raised a family, and held a number of important positions in the private sector and in government, we should only expect that he has learned things and altered his opinions accordingly. But you won't catch Romney the Strong admitting he was wrong in the past or explaining to an interested public how, as a reasonable person, he came to change his mind. That, we assume, is not "presidential." ?

Teenagers have other reasons to turn away from Romney, but independently of that, I think they would smell a strong whiff of tyranny in these statements by Romney the Strong. Certainly I do.

Please, let us not have another "infallible President." Let us not have a leader who confuses strength with secrecy and control. No more of that. Let us have a leader who equates strength with accountability and upholds the truth. If Obama is such a man, let's sit down with our teenagers and listen to him together.

And whatever happens, ask the teens what they think. That means a lot to them.

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