How Bush and Kerry "show leadership."

Political ads dissected and explained.
June 30 2004 6:03 PM

That's Show Biz

How Bush and Kerry "show leadership."

"What If" was produced by McCarthy Marcus Hennings Ltd. for the Progress for America Voter Fund. To watch the video on the PFAVF Web site, click here. For a script, click here.

"9/11: A leader showed strength and compassion," begins the narrator of this ad. "President Bush. He held us together." Indeed he did. As evidence, the screen displays image after image of Bush hugging people. First he's hugging a firefighter. Then he's gazing compassionately into the eyes of a man in a red, white, and blue cap. Then he's hugging another firefighter. Then he's sitting next to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld while someone, somewhere, is hunting down terrorist killers. "But what if Bush wasn't there?" the narrator asks. "Could John Kerry have shown this leadership?"

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Show, show, show. This is what passes for leadership in the age of television. Leadership used to be the noun form of a verb. A leader was someone who led. Now a leader is someone who "shows leadership." Politicians don't lead. They show.

Last month, Bush told an Arab reporter that the Palestinian prime minister must "show leadership, show leadership against the terrorists, and show leadership in putting the institutions in place for a state to emerge." A few days later, Vice President Cheney boasted that American troops had "shown leadership" in Iraq. Three weeks ago, a senior administration official crowed, "One of the very important initiatives that President Bush has shown leadership on is addressing the food security needs of the world."

All this talk about showing leadership confuses two different things. If you're a soldier under fire in Iraq, you're not "showing" anything. You're doing. You're guarding or patrolling or shooting or being shot at. When leadership is necessary, you lead. You don't worry much about how your actions look, because the stakes are immediate and real.

If you're a politician, however, everything is for show. You hug. You gaze. You grab a bullhorn at Ground Zero and shout something bold for the cameras. These gestures are often sincere, and they do count for something. But just as often, campaigns and candidates offer them as substitutes for action. If you haven't led—or led well—you show. And what you show is all the leadership you've shown.

This ad is a shining example. Cut through the hugs and gazes, and what's left of Bush's leadership? The ad's only substantial claim is that Bush "began to hunt down terrorist killers." Indeed he did, if you give him credit for everything done by U.S. troops and agents during his administration. And what's the upshot? A week ago, the State Department was forced to concede that, contrary to its initial assertions, terrorism increased sharply last year, producing the highest number of fatal terrorist shootings and bombings since 1998 and the highest number of significant terrorist incidents in at least 20 years. What does the ad say about this? Nothing. "President Bush will win this war on terror," it insists. As evidence, it shows Bush pointing his hand with decisive confidence.

Where did Bush get this idea of showing leadership? Probably from his dad. In a 1992 presidential debate, George H.W. Bush answered a question about family values this way:

One meeting that made a profound impression on me was when the mayors of the big cities, including the mayor of Los Angeles, a Democrat, came to see me, and they unanimously said the decline in urban America stems from the decline in the American family. So I do think we need to strengthen family. When Barbara holds an AIDS baby, she's showing a certain compassion for family; when she reads to children, the same thing.

There you have it. Mayors come to you with a warning that families are struggling, and you hold an AIDS baby to show compassion for the family. Let them eat leadership.

"Could John Kerry have shown this leadership?" asks the narrator in the ad for the current President Bush. Of course Kerry could. Kerry knows all about showing leadership. "I've spent a lifetime fighting on these issues, showing leadership in international affairs, in military affairs and in domestic affairs," Kerry boasted in a presidential primary debate last fall. In January, Kerry was asked whether the president should "take action" against obesity. "Yes, I believe the president should take leadership—should show leadership," Kerry corrected himself.

Three months ago, an AIDS protester shouted at Kerry during a rally with Howard Dean. "This young man up here who says talk about AIDS," Kerry replied. "I'll tell you, we have a president who's done nothing but talk rather than act. And we need to do more than talk. We need to show our leadership on a global basis to respond to one of the great challenges of all of humankind." The crowd applauded. Kerry, having talked enough about acting, moved on without explaining what he would do. It was quite a show.

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