Starting a few years back, possibly in the 1980s, parts of our society refused to take political legitimacy for granted. That is to say, they began to question, often repeatedly, whether certain individuals had the right to lead. The mantra was: “we need to know more about him or her.” The process by which this questioning is carried out is called “scrutiny” and, once let loose, it rarely ends.
Throughout most of our history candidates for office provided their life stories as an aspect of campaigning. They told us who they were and, by and large, we took their word for it. No doubt this benign good faith acceptance let a few fakers, but not many, slip through. I had some early experience with this. Though I had known and been known by the journalistic world, including close friendships with very prominent journalists, for at least fifteen years, after I became a serious national candidate the cry went up: “we don’t know who he is.”
President Obama is the most recent example of this. Though elected by a clear majority of Americans who knew of his background, virtually unique in national political history, he continues to be plagued by forces who seek to deny his legitimacy to lead. This will not end. The question is whether the media will continue to take showmen and self-promoters seriously as creating what they call “the news.” We are told by editors and news people that Donald Trump requires coverage, even live television coverage, because he is “making news.” Donald Trump doesn’t decide what is newsworthy. Journalists do.
These are not partisan observations. George W. Bush’s legitimacy to lead was repeatedly questioned by many Democrats who claimed he did not have the intelligence to be president, but even more significantly that his election in 2000, by what turned out to be one Supreme Court justice, was not legitimate. Rightly or wrongly, what now seems to be an endless questioning of the legitimacy of national leaders as newsworthy is taking its toll.
We have no way of measuring the impact of this skepticism run amock, this often mindless or even vicious passion to tear people down, on the caliber and quality of those who choose to seek political office and particularly high national office. We do not know, and probably never will, how many men and women of quality who wish to serve this nation for the most noble of reasons simply decide not to submit themselves to this “scrutiny” in the interest of preserving their dignity and self-respect.
I have no solution, other than serious introspection by citizens and journalists alike, to this problem. But it is a problem, and a serious one that will not go away on its own. One thing is obvious. It is not enough for those who decide what is, and is not, “news”, those who place stories in papers and on national television, to say that they are mere passive bystanders who have no choice but to give the Donald Trumps of the world legitimacy at the expense of the legitimacy of our national leadership.