It’s Not A Presidential ‘Pageant’

Susan Page
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Wednesday - June 11, 2008
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In 1966, I was in a beauty contest. All us contestants were young, could deliver a darn good speech and looked pretty. None of us had much, if any, life experience. Still, our contest, the Miss America Pageant, drew the largest television audience in history. The only queen America ever crowned was a beauty queen.

Thank goodness in American politics we don’t crown.

This election season, as we judge the candidates, I hope Americans remember that the presidential race isn’t a beauty contest. If it were, Sen. Barack Obama - young, pretty, toothy and agile - would be crowned immediately. Sen. John McCain, 71, with a rigid body, not-so-sparkling teeth and thinning, silver hair, would be hard-pressed to make the top 10, even with his fit physique.

But let’s go deeper, please, beyond Obama’s russet skin, arms stretched high and smile sparkling.


Last fall, a sarcastic pundit described McCain as “a doddering old man” when he walked onto the platform during one of the early debates. Context, please. That “doddering” came not from age but five-and-a-half years of torture and deprivation McCain suffered after being shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, when his knee was shattered and both arms broken. And, because he refused early release and to sign a propaganda statement, his arms were broken again in torture sessions, where he also endured “the ropes.” His defiance - expletives and a rude gesture - as described in Robert Timberg’s book, The Nightingale’s Song, garnered him some extra “attention.”

This is how my husband, Jerry Coffee, a fellow Hanoi POW, explains the “ropes”:

“You’re sitting on the floor with your feet locked in an iron shackle. They (Communist interrogators) tie your arms tightly behind you above the elbows. The long rope then is thrown over the front of your shoulders and tied to your ankles. Next, the guard pushes his foot into your back to cinch the rope so tightly that finally your ears are between your feet. The cartilage in your chest rips apart, your shoulders dislocate and the circulation is cut off. Next, the rope is thrown over a big hook on the ceiling and you’re hoisted up where you hang like a tether ball for as long as they want you there. This doesn’t help your broken arms and legs. Ironically, the pain isn’t over after you’re finally cut down. When the blood starts to flow into your extremities, it’s excruciating. You can’t hold your spoon for days after.”

And McCain’s teeth? Years of malnutrition take their toll.

McCain says that his knee still bothers him in cold weather and that he’s unable to raise his hands above his shoulders. His “Miss America” wave is forgivably awkward.

Actually, most beauty contests include an interview in which the contestant is asked questions one on one. The six or eight judges sit five feet away. Up close, her makeup is likely too heavy.

With no cheat-notes to rely on, her face will instantly reveal uncertainty. Good judges probe. Good judges won’t necessarily choose the pretty one, but one who withstands scrutiny.


American voters need to probe. Who are these men? What do they really believe? What’s their track record both in politics and professional life? What company have they kept, professionally and personally? Who shaped their political ideologies and personal philosophies? What have they said both in public and in private? Does their campaign rhetoric align with pre-campaign and private statements? Have they been tested leaders under fire? Can they back up their slogans with real plans addressing real issues? Are they honorable?

It’s time to strip away the beautiful speeches, pretty promises and sexy slogans.

History reveals who these guys are. They’ve both written books and have been written about. McCain’s books include: Worth the Fighting For; Faith of My Fathers; Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember; Why Courage Matters; Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (with Max Cleland and others). Timberg’s Nightingale Song and Paul Alexander’s The Man of the People are written about him.

Obama wrote The Audacity of Hope and Dreams from My Father; a Story of Race and Inheritance, about his rejection of his white maternal extended family in favor of his unknown Kenyan paternal extended family.

Remember, some of the world’s most effective leaders would never place in a beauty contest: Winston Churchill, Golda Meir, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, all famously homely.

Let’s take looks off the presidential table.

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