Pyle: What our leaders think of us
"There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader."
Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, 1807-1874, French politician
Leaders care what the people think of them. Otherwise, they don't get to be leaders, or stay leaders for very long.
But the people also care very much what their leaders think, or seem to think, of us. And we should be happy when these cold, calculating politicians think the best way to suck up to us is to appeal to what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."
Consider the presidential elections of the last 60 or so years.
• As retold in this space before, 1952/1956 Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson didn't endear himself to the masses when, answering a fan who assured him that "all the thinking people" would vote for him, he replied, "Yes, madam, but I need a majority."
• In 1972, Democrat George McGovern was probably destined to be crushed by Richard Nixon no matter what. But his campaign slogan, "Come home, America," had the ring of a would-be leader criticizing his own electorate for having gone astray.
• That was a lesson not lost on 1976 Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter, who promised us a government, "as good and decent and compassionate as the American people." In other words, contra McGovern, it was the people who were good, and their government didn't live up to them.
• By 1980, of course, after gasoline shortages, the Iran hostage crisis and Carter's own "crisis of confidence" speech which came across as though he were blaming us for the rotten national mood we had little interest in being "decent and compassionate." We wanted to kick some butt. And so we elected Ronald Reagan, the man who looked us in the eye and asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" A bit selfish, perhaps, but at least a sentiment that didn't blame the victim.
• In 1984, Reagan cruised to a landslide re-election on the slogan, "It's morning again in America." It was an argument to vote for Reagan again, of course, but most of the accompanying images were not of him, but of everyday people living uplifting lives.
• In 1988, and again in 2000, Republican candidates named Bush sought our votes by telling us we were all OK. George H.W. called us "a thousand points of light." And George W. promised "compassionate conservatism."
• In between, Bill Clinton rode to the White House on the slogan, "Putting people first." The unofficial phrase much better remembered now, "It's the economy, stupid," would have been his downfall if voters had thought the "stupid" part meant them, rather than the Republicans at whom it was really aimed.
• And in 2008, the American people rightly congratulated themselves for their open-minded attitudes by electing as president a black man with a funny name who offered us one word: "Hope."
Now that president, Barack Obama, with keen political instincts, all the online data mining that money can buy and more polls than live in Warsaw, has told us not just what he thinks, but what he thinks of us, by taking a stand in favor of same-sex marriage.
He did so after seeing his motor-mouthed vice president, and two more reticent members of his Cabinet, basically say the same thing, and after seeing that much of the reaction was one of non-surprise.
Successful leaders take their people where they want to go. Whether that's pandering or democracy depends on an individual's point of view, and can vary from issue to issue.
Come Nov. 6, we will see whether Obama has overestimated us.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, can be pandered to at email@example.com, on Twitter at @debatestate, or via Facebook at facebook.com/stateofthedebate.