February 18 , 2004

Being Presidential

By Mumia Abu-Jamal from Death Row

In times of national elections, the media abounds with references to whether one or another of the candidates for the nation's highest office looks "presidential."

And based on this calculation, candidates are covered (or not), and people form their opinions based on such projections.

Invariably, this determination is based on little more than the vagaries of opinion; how tall, how distinguished, how impressive a man looks.

On such images and impressions, such decisions are made.

I thought of this when I learned recently of the Cuban Missile Crisis between Kennedy and Castro in October 1962.

Virtually every military and intelligence adviser to President John F. Kennedy wanted him to unleash a full military assault on the small, Caribbean island. Some wanted him to invade. Others wanted him to use nuclear weapons.

To his credit, the former Navy man rejected the opinions of his advisers, and sought a diplomatic, back-channel solution, that avoided plunging the nation into war, and perhaps the world into havoc (Still, Cuba suffered horribly, and still does).

Consider the reign of George Bush, who chose instead, to listen to the most martial, and ideological of his advisers, and launched a war in Iraq in pursuit of 'weapons of mass destruction', and now explains that the decision was based on 'bad intelligence.' Hundreds of Americans are dead, and an uncounted number of Iraqis. The chances of finding the alleged WMDs are slim and none, according to David Kay, the nation's former leading weapons inspector.

The point is, that Presidents, if they are indeed 'presidential', don't merely listen to their advisers. They decide, using judgment, and knowledge.

They ideally decide what is in the nation's best interest, which doesn't mean the monied classes, but the people; the citizenry. If they can't or don't do this, then they are unworthy of the office. Can we even begin to imagine what this world would have been like if Kennedy listened to the 'experts' of the CIA, or the Army?

And yet, have we not said that what we call 'presidential' depends on image? What lies behind those images? Former CIA Station chief, John Stockwell wrote, in *The Praetorian Guard: The U.S. Role in the New World Order* (South End Press: 1991):

Everyone knows that politicians routinely exaggerate, distort, and make promises that they know full well they can never fulfill. They are selling illusions of themselves; they are coached and packaged by professional public relations teams who have made a science out of the marketing of politics. War, too, is packaged and sold. Woodrow Wilson campaigned in 1912 promising to keep the United States out of World War I. Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned in 1940, very careful not to appear as if he wanted to take the nation into World War II on the side of the British. Lyndon Johnson promised in 1964 that American boys would not die in Vietnam. Once elected, each of those presidents did lead the nation into wars in which hundreds of thousands of young American soldiers died. Moreover, most of the dead, without understanding the issues, had been conditioned to believe that it was proper for them to fight and die [26].

And now, the perennial election season heats up. The American people are once again prey to a wealth of images that will crystallize into nightmarish realities at a blink if they choose the wrong path. Indeed, in times such as these, can there be any path that isn't wrong?

The president has a media war chest in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the only opponent that seems to be left standing is one who voted to empower the president in his reckless campaign, who voted to fund the Iraq Debacle, and also voted for such anti-democratic initiatives as NAFTA, and the horrendous Patriot Act!

Ultimately, it seems, it isn't presidents who run systems; it is systems which run presidents.

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