Pete Seat: Presidential 'qualifications' evolve
Thursday, October 08, 2015 10:31 AM
INDIANAPOLIS – In the mind of Dr. Ben Carson, a Muslim is not qualified to be president. In the mind of Bill Kristol, Ben Carson is not qualified to be president. And in the mind of André Carson, one of two Muslims in Congress, if his fellow followers can’t be president, maybe neurosurgeons like Ben Carson shouldn’t be either.
Regardless of what any of these men believe, all three are highlighting an age-old debate about the unregulated stipulations of what constitutes a person who is “presidential.”
So what, exactly, makes one presidential? The constitutional requirements are simple and to the point. An individual seeking the presidency must be a natural born citizen of the United States, no younger than 35 years old and a resident of the country for at least 14 years. That’s it. Oh, and contrary to Dr. Carson’s personal preference, no religious test can be used to determine eligibility for that or any other office.
Beyond that, Americans have concocted various criteria that we believe makes one fit for the highest office in the land, including governing experience, legislative accomplishments, leadership ability and a compelling message and vision for the country. It’s important to note, however, that said criteria are evolving and what is unpresidential today is presidential tomorrow.
For instance, until John F. Kennedy, being Catholic wasn’t presidential. Before George W. Bush, having a master’s degree in business administration wasn’t presidential. And prior to Barack Obama, being black wasn’t presidential. Heck, we still live in a world in which being a woman isn’t technically presidential either, that is, until we elect one.
Among the intangible qualifications is that of temperament, one that is being used against Donald Trump in an attempt to dislodge him from atop Republican primary polls. In the second GOP presidential debate, speaking of Trump, Carly Fiorina said, “I also think that one of the benefits of a presidential campaign is that the character and capability, judgment and temperament of every single one of us is revealed over time and under pressure. All of us will be revealed under pressure.”
By raising the issue of temperament, she tried to turn Trump’s great asset, his disdain for political correctness, into a liability. Trump, naturally, disagreed by saying he has a “great temperament.” I guess that settles that. But in a Rolling Stone interview, Trump worked to define presidential by exclaiming “Look at that face!” when Fiorina appeared on television. Trump, it seems, was attempting to make the case that Fiorina is not presidential based on her gender.
That moment recalls the admonishment of youth in which we were told to never judge a book by its cover. Yet, that’s in large part how we determine presidential suitability in the television era. Whereas prior to the boob tube we waged contests of wit (in most cases), we now engage in contests of appearance.
The New York Times reported in 2012 that Mitt Romney’s debate preparations, while also helping him bone up on issues and lines of attack, also taught him “how to keep his composure, look presidential.” The good news for Romney was that with his well-coiffed salt-and-pepper hair, he looked the part. But that wasn’t enough, he still fell short.
Another 2012 Republican aspirant, Jon Huntsman, also looked the part. If the man never spoke a word you could easily point at him in a “pick the president” line-up. Yet, he barely made it out of the starting gate. Even so, television’s impact has been so pronounced (think back to the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960) that I’m left to wonder if the medium had existed in the 1860s, the awkward looking one-term congressman from Illinois who went on to save the Union would have stood a chance.
Another president from Illinois, Barack Obama has himself evoked a myriad of questions regarding what is presidential and what is not. From the moment he was sworn into office, our nation’s 44th president has gone well out of his way to broadcast his message through less traditional means, which has evoked the ire of his critics in both the Republican Party and the media.
He’s shown up on ESPN to discuss his NCAA bracket at length and in great detail multiple times. He’s bantered with YouTube sensations. He’s traipsed around Alaska with television host and adventure seeker Bear Grylls. None of these public relations stunts would have been viewed as presidential prior to 2008, but now, depending on whom you ask, they are standard operating procedure for a commander-in-chief.
And depending on the results of the 2016 presidential election, we could find ourselves adding to the definition of presidential again. We could make Cuban-American presidential. We could make Indian-American presidential. We could make reality television host presidential. Who knows, we might even make neurosurgeon presidential.
Pete Seat is senior project manager at the Indianapolis-based Hathaway Strategies. He was previously a spokesman for President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. Dan Coats and the Indiana Republican Party. He joins Howey Politics Indiana as a regular columnist.