Last night, in one of the stranger moments in recent international news, Seif al-Islam, son of apparently toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, called a hasty press conference in Tripoli, hours after spokespeople of both the rebel coalition and the International Criminal Court announced he had been captured by opposing forces.
To the surprise of journalists, the Gadhafi scion strode confidently around the streets of Tripoli and emphatically offered a version of events completely at odds with the narrative we have seen on our television screens over the last few days. In a scene reminiscent of the bizarre press conferences offered by “Bagdhad Bob” — who claimed back in 2003 that forces of Sadaam Hussein had routed the invading Americans — Mr. Al-Islam boldly claimed the “backs of the rebel forces had been broken” and that the Gadhafi regime was in firm control of the capital.
With this shameless performance echoing in my head I changed channels to see an interview by CNN host Piers Morgan of GOP presidential candidate John Huntsman. When pressed genially by Mr. Morgan as to his electoral prospects, the floundering candidate responded as all candidates do in similar situations: he assured viewers in no uncertain terms that he fully expected to secure the Republican nomination and to eventually become the next president of the United States.
Now I have nothing against Mr. Huntsman; by all superficial accounts he seems to be a fine upstanding man who feels deeply about his family and his country, but his characterization of his campaign had about as much relationship with reality as did Gadhafi Jr.’s assessment of the military situation in Libya. Please understand I am drawing no moral equivalence between the two men; I am simply noticing a similarity between how public figures address a mass audience.
There are certainly no objective surveys showing a path to victory for Mr. Huntsman. Yet all political consultants would agree that it would be political suicide for him to assess the situation honestly. For some reason he can’t say his prospects appear remote but he is bravely soldiering on despite the odds and will bring his message to the people regardless of consequences. Why is that? Aren’t Americans supposed to rally behind the underdog and those who strive even when victory appears remote?
Unfortunately, one of the most important political assets is the appearance of strength. The body politic, whether in a democracy or a crumbling dictatorship, wants to be, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “on the side that’s winning.” That’s why results from the early primary states are so disproportionately important. Candidates risk all to grab the appearance of strength. Undecided voters then irresistibly drift to the seemingly stronger candidates just because they posses an aura of strength and victory, not necessarily because they agree with the candidates’ positions. There is a very similar dynamic in the financial world in which, during times of uncertainty, investors often blindly follow the crowd while seeking safety in numbers.
Unfortunately issues can be complicated, but the image of strength is simple. Although Huntsman and al-Islam differ in just about every way imaginable, they’re alike in their ability to look into the camera and grossly mischaracterize events to project an image of strength. This is a quality all political animals have. Here in the U.S., politicians habitually stretch the truth much farther than John Huntsman did last night. Those who don’t usually fail as politicians.
What amazes me is that in a free country, where an independent press is supposed to keep politicians honest and where voters can support anyone without consequence, these basic rules remain firmly in place. As a result, our politicians never admit the truth, always blame the opponent, never answer the question asked, always respond in platitudes rather than substance, and rigorously stay on message, even when the message is muddled.
While we’re all sick of the kabuki theater that masquerades as the political process here in the U.S., it’s hard to see how a new form of politics can ever successfully emerge.