During the turbulent 1968 presidential primary campaign, a colleague and I left our seats on the plane carrying former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and approached the candidate sitting by himself and staring morosely out the window.
“Governor, we would like to ask you a question,” Robert Endicott of ABC said. “We have listened to all those rousing speeches and promises of change. Now we would like to know what would you do if you actually were elected president of the United States?” — an accomplishment of extremely low probability, we both knew.
Wallace bit down on the small, unlit cigar in his mouth and showed signs of utter panic. But Endicott persisted. “Really, what would you do, governor? You whip up the crowds from Michigan to Florida with all that talk about throwing the rascals out of Washington. But have you thought about waking up the winner? Then what? What would you do?”
For once in his controversial political life, Wallace seem utterly speechless, mumbling almost incoherently as we turned and left, two “gotcha” smart-alecks grinning all the way back to our seats on a rickety old Lockheed Electra that served as the candidate’s official campaign plane. Still, it was a fair question despite the fact that, while a viable primary candidate, Wallace thankfully had no chance of winning a general election in what was shaping up as a three-candidate contest.
It is also a question that voters, who seem to be deciding it is more important to first elect a black to the presidency than a woman, should be asking themselves about Sen. Barack Obama. This is not meant in any way to equate the Democratic presidential primary leader with the late segregation-minded Wallace, a comparison that not only would be ludicrous but completely unfair to the Illinois senator. Only in their ability to spellbind a crowd with populist rhetoric can there be any similarity.
Obama’s message of change and the condemnation of Washington as a place where good ideas go to die, uttered in brilliant Kennedyesque tones and phrases, is winning him converts everywhere. But it has one failing. As noted by a desperate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, it is not backed up by the prospect of accomplishment that comes from serious experience in the art of statecraft and that resonates because the man uttering all those inspiring words has a substantial history of making things work. He has none. In the few years he served as a state legislator, he voted “present” much of the time. In his brief tenure in the U.S. Senate, he has spent more time off the floor campaigning for the next rung up rather than making a serious legislative mark.
Supporters say that if he does win the nomination, there will be time in the general-election race to lay out a specific agenda and to clarify the few proposals he has attempted and that now are murky and half-cooked. It is reasonable to ask whether he has the political skill to make them work. Are Americans, in their zeal for change, for a fresh approach from their government, too willing to accept the promises of a dashing young man about whom very little is actually known?
The same sort of psychology bore former one-term Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter to the White House. Most historians agree it was a disaster, with ruinous interest rates, inflation, international crises and the “malaise” — Carter’s own word — that settled across the nation. Before that, John F. Kennedy, to whom Obama is most often compared, offered the same inspiration, but lacked the political savvy to promote his ideas into reality. He had spent too much time outside Washington on his quest for the White House, leaving him unprepared to avoid the pitfalls even with a much-better-prepared brother at his side. Have we not just had eight years of similar inexperience?
So it seems absolutely fair to ask Obama the same question that was asked of Wallace: What would he do? Why should we take on faith and the breathlessness of an infatuated media that he has the answers to our problems? What makes us and him, for that matter, believe that he is ready to tackle this job when there are two other candidates, Clinton and now-certain Republican nominee John McCain, who clearly are ready for this almost-impossible assignment?
What if he were to wake up president of the United States? It is a question voters need to ask.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)