Political Compassion

Meg Whitman’s former maid, Nicandra Diaz-Santillan, an illegal immigrant, was in the news again recently, settling for $5,500 to cover back wages owed to her. Not present at the negotiations was her former employer and the former candidate for Governor of California.

Whitman claimed that she did not know Diaz-Santillan was an illegal immigrant when she ran for governor. Four months into her campaign, she fired Diaz-Santillan without compassion, told her that she never knew her, and tried to keep the whole affair secret. When it came out, Whitman shifted the blame onto the housekeeper. She even said in one interview that the woman should be deported.

Now Whitman may think the housekeeper incident is to blame for her loss in the governor’s race. However, had Whitman gone about it the right way, she could have come across as compassionate, and the whole affair might have worked in her favor.  (See my post of October 5, 2010 “ Meg Whitman’s Housekeeper.”)

The California governor’s race shows how important it is to appear compassionate. Whitman spent close to $150M on her campaign. By comparison, Jerry Brown’s funds were puny. Whitman’s ads attacked Brown, as expected, but ads that were meant to extol Whitman were cold and clinical, often appearing more like Powerpoint presentations. Brown’s ads substantiated this by depicting Whitman as a heartless CEO, in it only for herself. More importantly, when Brown appeared at the end of his ads, he came over as passionate and caring.

The same situation appeared in the other big California race, the one for Barbara Boxer’s senate seat, a race that the GOP thought they could win with a high profile candidate. Carli Fiorina’s ad campaign was based around attacks on Barbara Boxer, but Boxer’s campaign took a similar approach to Brown’s, showing Fiorina as a non-caring CEO out for herself only, in contrast to a caring Boxer. Since the voters knew Boxer as a long serving senator and did not know the newcomer Fiorina, the attacks on Boxer largely failed, while the depiction of Fiorina as cold and heartless stuck.  As the election neared, the Fiorina ads took a cue from Jerry Brown’s campaign and tried to show Fiorina as personable and passionate, but by then it was too late.

We don’t just want capable leaders; we want leaders that feel. The unpopularity of the former speaker of the house and present minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, is because she shows no compassion. By contrast, the new speaker John Boehner may be less capable, but he has shown genuine emotion on national TV, and that will work for us.

I think one reason for President Bill Clinton’s popularity was that people knew he cared. When he said, “I feel your pain,” people believed him. Even now, I still think he genuinely did.

What about Clinton’s successors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama? I am prepared to say that both Bush cared and Obama cares. With Bush, this did not always come across. The most notable time when it did not was during the Katrina disaster. There is no question that that damaged Bush’s standing. Now with Obama, when a large part of the country is hurting, the sense of compassion is not seen to be there. His words are always fine and appropriate, and he may be able fix the problem and get the economy moving again, albeit slowly, but what we need to see is that our predicament hurts him too.

Obama’s Waterloo?

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico may signal the end of trust in the President Obama, just as Hurricane Katrina damaged President Bush’s standing. Considering all the aspects of the oil disaster, it is difficult to see how the administration could have acted otherwise. But we the people expect more. Although the public’s general view of the government comes with a large dose of cynicism, when we find ourselves in a situation like the BP oil disaster or Katrina, we expect some superhuman solution to the crisis.

The truth of the matter is that there are some crises that are so great that they are beyond the ability of the government to deal with immediately and in a totally effective way.

The 9/11 attack was a major crisis that fell within the range of our ability to act, and the government did react swiftly and effectively identified the source of and responsibility for the attack. Until we were diverted into the irrelevant Iraq war, there were only small missteps that could be criticized.

In the case of Katrina, it is true that Bush made some goofs, but overall it was clear that the extent of the crisis was well beyond the country’s ability to deal with it immediately and effectively. When the waters retreated, most of the blame fell unfairly on the shoulders of Bush, and he and his administration will forever be marked by the failures of Katrina.

Will we see that same with Obama and the BP oil disaster? Obama’s main misstep has been not to be seen to be angry with BP. As the disaster develops more and more into a major catastrophe, I think it is quite likely that we will tar Obama with it as part of his legacy.

The Nobel Peace Prize

So Obama got the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. The Peace Prize is supposed to be given to whomever has done the most “during the preceding year” to promote fraternity between nations, to abolish or reduce standing armies and for holding or promoting “peace congresses.”

Although the peace prize committee tried to justify it, I don’t think Obama has done enough to warrant the award, especially if by “preceding year” is meant the year 2008.

One joke (by Jay Leno) is that he got the prize for inviting a black Harvard professor and a white policeman to the White House to make peace over a few beers.

I have respect for the other Nobel awards, but the Peace Prize awards are often laughable, and I tend to view these with a degree of cynicism. With other Nobel awards, there is the passage of years that allows the honored achievement to be evaluated with the hindsight of time. This perspective is not given to the peace committee or it is not taken. So there is a danger of getting sucked into what appears now, rather than what is effective over a period of time.

In this way the 1973 peace prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger and Le Doc Tho for the “Paris Peace Accords”. The latter refused it, pointing out that there was no peace in his country, something that the Peace prize committee should have taken into account. But the war-mongering hawk Kissinger was only too happy to accept his for what turned out to be little more than a cynical exercise, for the United States continued bombing North Vietnam. In this category we could include the peace prizes that were awarded to leaders in the Middle East conflicts.

In the past, nominees for the peace prize have included Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and (for a short time) Adolf Hitler.

Some awards make you wonder what the honoree has done with regard to fraternity between nations, army reduction or peace congresses. Most notable here is the 1979 award to Mother Teresa. She was deserving of some award, but what she did had nothing within the parameters of the Nobel Peace Prize, and, as her acceptance speech showed, she had no concept of what was needed for world peace.

The Nobel Peace Prize is deserving of the least respect among the Nobel Prize awards.