I didn’t vote for Al Gore in 2000. I didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Why? Among other reasons, a lack of eye contact.
In the 2016 primary, as a registered Republican, I voted for John Kasich—a good, intelligent and decent man, I think, with whom I disagree on some issues. In fact, that set of phrases can be applied to every presidential candidate I’ve ever voted for. In the general election, honestly, I can say that about most of the two parties’ candidates throughout my life.
George H.W. Bush? A good, intelligent and decent man with whom I disagree on some issues.
Bob Dole? A good, intelligent and decent man with whom I disagree on some issues.
John McCain? A goddamned hero and idol of mine, with whom I disagree on some issues.
Oddly, there are two men, one a Democrat and one a Republican, that I would not say that about. If I were a better man, my differences with a candidate would be based solely on major issues. As a lesser man, the cause of my disregard of these two men is based solely on personal interactions with them. Let me explain.
As a relatively politically active voter in the first primary state, I’ve met almost all the ultimate nominees, either during the primary or during the general election. “Met” is a relative term—I haven’t had a one-on-one meal with any candidates who made it out of New Hampshire (Hi, Bruce Babbitt—you were better than you got!). Still, I’ve had, say, at least a three-minute conversation with all the finalists, and only two of them struck me as not good, intelligent and decent.
In 1987, four or five months before the 1988 primary (and before I’d signed on with the sainted but doomed Babbitt campaign), I was making the rounds of political coffees, getting to know Dick Gephardt, Paul Simon (not THAT Paul Simon), Mike Dukakis, etc. In August, at a garden party in Nashua, I had a chance to meet Al Gore, Tennessee Senator and presidential candidate. I’ve always been a reader or subscriber to The New Republic, a neoliberal magazine that was excited about Gore. Both Gore and I had been military journalists—he in Vietnam—so I expected to feel simpatico; instead, I felt dismissed and disrespected, as Gore, while talking with me, kept his gaze resolutely over my left shoulder as if looking for a cameraman to come into his sight. During our three minutes, he did respond to my questions, but never met my gaze. I know it’s petty, but I swore on that August evening, I would never vote for Al Gore for president. And I didn’t. When he was the 2000 Democratic nominee, running against George W. Bush, I wrote in John McCain, a wasted vote, I know, but a vote for a man who is good, intelligent and decent.
The second candidate I can’t describe as good, intelligent and decent is Donald Trump, again because of a personal encounter, this time 10 days before the general election. I’ll write more soon about this meeting, at which I kept a ton of notes, but the quick takeaway is the Trump campaign had arranged a meeting between the candidate and a small group of folks who’d been impacted by the opiate epidemic. I happened to be seated within arm’s reach of the candidate, so was able to observe him for the 20 minutes or so he granted this group. During this time, while mothers wept for their lost children, health-care providers shared stories of addicts turned away to overdose alone and addicts in recovery talked of what worked for them, Donald Trump stared down at his cell phone, like a back-row high-school sophomore during a boring assembly. While he may have been reading important messages regarding campaign strategy (or playing Fruit Ninja, for all I know), he was able to ignore true human tragedy in the form of stories, tragedy being directed to him in hopes that, if elected, he could ease that pain. Since his campaign had asked folks to bring their concerns to the candidate, Donald Trump might have at least given the appearance of paying attention to their grief.
And Al Gore might have looked me in the eye.
I don’t think basic goodness is too much to ask for, nor is intelligence or decency, but to accept less is to ask for far too little.