Since 1980, roughly, the beginning of the cable television (now internet and cable television) era, the American presidential contest has become a lot like The Bachelor — reality television writ large. The most likable guy wins. The stiff always loses.
Ronald Reagan was the prototype, an aw-shucks, "common sense" guy who played his greatest acting role as president. He was a natural on camera, a good speaker with a great speech writer, Peggy Noonan. His 1980 opponent, Jimmy Carter, crippled by gas shortages and the Iran hostage crisis, came off as weak sauce — no fun.
In 1984, Democrat Walter Mondale took on Reagan. He was handicapped by being a boring stiff and by having the name "Walter." The affable Reagan ate his lunch.
In 1988, the first President Bush had the good fortune to get Michael Dukakis as his opponent. Dukakis had the triple whammy of being from Massachusetts, being short, and having advisers who thought it would be a great idea to have their candidate drive a tank, which resulted in one of the most hilarious visual gaffes ever. Compared to dorky Dukakis, the patrician Bush came off as Larry the Cable Guy.
But then, in 1992, along came Bubba — Bill Clinton — the über good ol' boy. Given the combination of Ross Perot's third-party candidacy and the senior Bush's aristocratic air, Clinton was a shoo-in. In 1996, the GOP threw Bob Dole at Clinton, who swatted him like a gnat — a stiff gnat.
In 2000, the Democrats nominated Al Gore, a wonky stiff who talked about "lock boxes." Up against the latest folksy model from the GOP — George W. Bush — Gore managed to win the popular vote but failed to convince the Supreme Court, which decided he was a stiff.
The Democrats doubled down in 2004, nominating the awkwardest guy they could find: John "Munster" Kerry. He talked like a stiff. He went duck hunting and looked like a stiff. He went windsurfing and looked even stiffer. Bush, despite war, scandal, incoherency, and incompetency, won a second term.
Then, in 2008, came Mr. Smooth, aka President Obama, an orator who could hang with Clinton and Reagan. He was young, likable, had a cute family. He played basketball. Opponent John McCain never knew what hit him.
Now, the Republicans have nominated Mitt Romney, a man so uncomfortable in his own skin, he makes John Kerry look hip. The most recent polling suggests he is in trouble. I say, forget the polling. Just figure out who the stiff is. I think I know.
So, Memphis has a new mayor-elect. While many people were surprised at last week's election results, those with access to various local political insiders were not. Polling numbers had been bandied about sotto voce for weeks, numbers that suggested Jim Strickland had a substantial lead over two-term incumbent A C Wharton. But none of the polling numbers I heard suggested a result in which Strickland would basically double Wharton's percentage of the total vote ...
It's deep in a November night in Memphis, and I'm awakened by rain. It's coming down hard, sounding like a million pebbles hitting the roof. The gutter I've been meaning to clean is overflowing outside the bedroom window. A flash of lightning illuminates the room, and I do what I've done since I was a boy: count the seconds 'til the thunder rolls. I get almost to 10 before I hear a distant rumble. Two miles or so. Someone else's lightning ...