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December 8, 2012

Win the minds,and the hearts should follow

By Justin Vernold
The Daily Star

---- — I’ve always found politics interesting, and as a newspaper editor it’s impossible to avoid paying attention to the topic. But I wouldn’t label myself a political junkie. Our world is so large, and our national politics so small, that it seems futile to invest an inordinate amount of emotion in something so degenerate and discouraging.

That said, I’m a language buff, so one of the highlights of this election year for me was the long-awaited quadrennial return of one of my favorite nouns: likability.

It’s hard to think of any word more vague or amorphous in the entire English language. Merriam-Webster defines it as “having qualities that bring about a favorable regard: pleasant, agreeable.”

But what, exactly, are those qualities? I don’t know, but I’ve read that President Barack Obama has them. And whatever they are, they sound fascinating, based on what conservative pundit Michael Medved wrote this summer.

“Even with dark clouds surrounding the economy and highly energized, well-funded conservatives preparing to storm the seat of power,” Medved wrote Aug. 7, “Obama strategists view Fortress Likability as the final, secure stronghold that will deliver them from all dangers.”

Mother Teresa once said peace begins with a smile. So too, apparently, does a successful defense against a besieging enemy.

Head-scratching metaphors aside, Obama does have a pleasant, agreeable personality – as poll after poll has shown, and as even many who despise his policies will concede. But this is based almost entirely on anecdote – not on Obama meeting some objectively definable criteria that can be easily applied to other candidates.

It seems it’s the details that make a man likable. For example, while opponent Mitt Romney turned down multiple offers to appear on the late-night talk shows this year, Obama routinely accepted, making him seem more accessible and comfortable in his own skin. Likewise, Obama’s annual SportsCenter appearance to fill out his NCAA tournament bracket is a subtly effective way for any head of state to connect with hoi polloi.

Romney, of course, has long been dogged by doubts about his likability, fairly or not. But perception is what matters, and it’s hard to remember any presidential candidate more tin-eared than Romney, who has an uncanny (and often amusing) knack for saying the most

awkward thing imaginable when put on the spot.

Sometimes, he isn’t even put on the spot. While appearing with a group of black schoolchildren at a 2008 Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Jacksonville, Fla., Romney, for no apparent reason, enthusiastically shouted “Who let the dogs out? Whooo, whooo.” Perhaps confused by the lack of dogs, the kids responded with awkward silence.

When asked if he follows NASCAR while attending the Daytona 500 in February, Romney responded like any man of the people, saying: “Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans. But I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”

Then there was Romney’s odd $10,000 bet against Texas Gov. Rick Perry during a debate last fall. A million bucks is clearly hyperbole, or a hundred bucks makes your point. Or, if you’re going out of your way to seem out of touch, it’s hard to think of a better amount than $10,000 – and Romney nailed it.

These weren’t just gaffes; they were a serious concern for the Romney campaign. As the Washington Post noted in August, polls had Romney viewed as likable by just 40 percent of Americans – a lower percentage than presidential losers Walter Mondale in 1984 (47 percent), Michael Dukakis in 1988 (50 percent), George H.W. Bush in 1992 (53 percent) and Bob Dole in 1996 (50 percent).

Oddly enough, I actually @Body Copy Ragged:like Mitt Romney. As readers of my previous columns know, this isn’t because I liked his politics. Ironically, it’s Romney’s utter lack of charisma that appeals to me.

As a longtime social anxiety sufferer, I sympathize with anyone who has to compensate for a lack of charm. Romney’s awkwardness comes from saying the wrong things; mine is from being physically unable to speak at all.

But one can always win respect the old-fashioned way: by being kind, thoughtful and loyal. Or in Romney’s case, by working hard and being a faithful husband and father for four decades, unlike eminently unlikable ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was last seen using the children from his first wife to prove his second wife was lying about his third wife.

Let’s keep likability in perspective. A warm personality is, obviously, a good trait for any leader who needs to persuade and build consensus. But George W. Bush, for example, was widely regarded as likable – and was a reckless, irresponsible president. And when Obama was considering a strike on Osama bin Laden’s compound last year, he needed sound judgment, not likability.

And let’s not confuse likability with trustworthiness, or charisma with decency. Or if all else fails, just settle for that stern competence admired by Machiavelli, who observed: “Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared.”

JUSTIN VERNOLD is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at jvernold@thedailystar.com or 432-1000, ext. 216.