Why Are Politicians Widely Admired?

by Conor Friedersdorf

Over at Ricochet, capable editor Diane Ellis writes about Gallup's list of the most admired men in America, which includes a lot of political figures:

The cynic’s interpretation:  A list including Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter as the most admired men is evidence that Americans are imbeciles who are prone to the servile temptation, admire ruthless power wielders, and rejoice in the expansion of government.

The idealist’s interpretation: A list including George W. Bush, Nelson Mandela, Pope Benedict XVI, Rev. Billy Graham, and the Dalai Lama testifies to the value that Americans place on the qualities of humility, religiosity, and perseverance in the face of adversity.

My guess is that polls like this are all about name recognition (it hardly makes sense to answer "my grandfather" when Gallup calls on the phone), though I'd never cite a living politician if asked who I admired most. There is a worship of people who hold power that runs through most humans. In modern times, it hasn't served us particularly well, and it is particularly contrary to America's civic religion. That said, I don't think Jimmy Carter was a ruthless power wielder, nor do I think humility is a quality that any of the men mentioned possess (the Dalai Lama possibly excepted – I don't know enough about him to judge one way or the other).

It's particularly surprising to me that George W. Bush has successfully passed himself off as a humble guy. Former alcoholics with powerful fathers and a decidedly mixed record in business don't tend to run for the governorship of their state if they're humble. Hubristic foreign wars that almost fail due to insufficient planning and lack of troops aren't launched by humble men. "The Decider" is not a humble nickname to give oneself, and the humble men I've met would never mock suboordinates by giving them frathouse nicknames. Does a humble president jump into a flight suit and land on an aircraft carrier for the cameras? And the last thing a humble man would do is follow his failed presidency by writing a book that purports to teach others the art of successful decision-making. (In fairness, it is quite possible that George W. Bush has fooled himself into thinking that he is humble.)