From the Publisher: The New Normal

Arnold G. York

Normal is what you grew up with. 

For most Americans, our presidents were dignified white guys who spoke the English language with a certain white cadence (Yes, there really is a white cadence.) and had a certain gravitas, which we called being presidential.

We tend to think today as if this always was the way, but that is a bit of a self-deception. Now, how a candidate appears on TV and in social media rules the day, but it was only in 1952 during the presidential campaign that TV first became a large factor in the campaign.

The Republicans realized this before the Democrats, hired a few top Madison Avenue advertising executives and helped to carefully package the political newbie Dwight D. Eisenhower into “I like Ike.” It worked, and Ike became the next president. Maybe Ike, the leader of the American/European alliance in WWII, would have been elected without TV, but the campaign certainly helped shape him and changed the way we did politics. Looking back, it all seems perfectly clear. At that time, many people said, “You can’t sell a president like you sell soap. It cheapens the man and the office. It won’t work.” Well, they were wrong, and people wouldn’t even think about not using TV today. It was the new normal.

Sometimes it takes people a while to understand and accept the new normal. They fight it. They hang onto the old thinking. They don’t like the look of the future, so they reject it.

In the 1960 presidential election, the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, was challenging then-Vice President, Californian Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy was generally thought to be a pretty boy, but a bit shallow, without the gravitas necessary to take the White House against a seasoned politician like Nixon. For the first time, presidential debates were a factor in the contest, and the smart money said Nixon was a skilled and experienced debater, had gone toe-to-toe with Russian leader Khrushchev, and would wipe the floor with Kennedy. They said Kennedy was inexperienced and immature.

Those who heard it on radio said Nixon won. Those who saw it on television — which was most of America — had no question as to who won. It was Kennedy. Kennedy was handsome and rested and tan and was OK in the debate, and his appearance and bearing laid to rest the charge that he was immature. Nixon, by comparison, looked pale, almost sickly, and sweated. The new normal was how you came across on TV under pressure, and it has been the same ever since.

When Barack Obama first came onto the national presidential scene, I had friends —both Republican and Democrat — who said to me, “Barack Hussein Obama, a black guy with a father from Kenya — you got to be kidding me.” Obviously, looking back, there was a new normal and the rest is history

Now, once again, we’re in a presidential contest. There are many very seasoned, experienced capable people running for the nominations. The field is filled with senators, governors and secretaries of state, some very bright, all experienced, all proven talents. So who is leading the respective packs? On the Republican side, Trump and now Carson are gaining ground. On the Democratic side, Hillary, who was practically the anointed candidate, appears to be slipping and losing ground to a U.S. Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders — a sometimes Independent Socialist. I grew up in Brooklyn with guys like Bernie Sanders. I’m sure if you polled the guys in Bernie’s old neighborhood and said Bernie is actually maybe a serious candidate for the Presidency of the United States, they would all say in unison, “fuggedaboutit,” but they might be wrong.

It’s possible that Trump, Carson and Sanders are all the new normal, and that the old normal is Hillary — bright, able, tough and boring. (Or Jeb Bush, equally bright — certainly the brighter of the brothers — also able, tough and equally boring.) Are Trump, Carson and Sanders the new normal, or merely the Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum of the earlier presidential contests, who had a brief moment in the spotlight, and then slipped quietly back into the shadows? Despite all the pontificating, we’re not really going to know until people start casting ballots in the primaries.

It’s always easier to handicap the new normal looking back, and it’s a lot tougher to figure it out looking forward. It’s going to be an interesting year.