ESTHER CEPEDA: Maybe this time the nice guy won’t finish last
CHICAGO -- It’s possible that the worst legacy of the last three presidential elections is that we now expect our candidates to be Washington outsiders and “rock stars.”
Like overstimulated children who have been battling aliens on the Xbox all day and are resistant to a peaceful bedtime story, we seem to now be programmed to look for celebrity, novelty or an indescribable pizzazz when deciding who should be our next president.
A year ago, the nation was enthralled with a possible Oprah Winfrey candidacy after the former daytime talk-show host made an inspirational speech at the Golden Globes ceremony.
As the idea churned out of control on social media, cooler heads urged restraint.
Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed news, railed against the idea, suggesting that Democrats should not be looking for a future candidate who can outshine Donald Trump, but someone who is the opposite of our reality-star president -- “And that’s where governors and senators with deep experience, proven political chops, and an unglamorous sense of normalcy come in.”
But traditional, steady candidates don’t drive web traffic.
Which is why most of the nation would be forgiven for saying “Who?!” if they were asked about Democrat Julian Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development who launched his presidential bid on a recent sunny Saturday in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas.
“This morning, I rode the number 68 bus with my brother down Guadalupe Street as we did so many times as kids ... the same bus route that we used to take with my mother to get to school or to her work during the summer,” Castro said, after opening his speech with a thank you for his mom, his wife and kids. He even thanked the press covering the event, adding that “they are the friend of the truth in this country.”
But, isn’t “nice” faint praise?
Perhaps not fainter than this gem from a 2010 New York Times Magazine profile about Castro titled “The Post-Hispanic Hispanic Politician”: “He is cerebral, serious, self-contained and highly efficient. If he were an energy source, he’d be zero-emission.”
That sounds about right.
I was out running my Saturday morning errands when a friend messaged me, asking if I was watching Castro’s announcement.
I texted back: “No, I feel like he’s the nice, clean guy your mom met and wanted you to date. He seems perfectly fine, but terribly boring. That’s not fair, of course, but I’m just not interested, and I don’t think his candidacy is going anywhere.”
Ouch. That wasn’t very nice of me. I’ve considered my words and have to wonder if I’ve fallen prey to expecting bells, whistles and entertainment from a candidate when what we need is a steady pair of hands.
Does the nation really want another Big Mac-eating, sunglasses-wearing, saxophone-playing dude on late-night TV, another savior figure who will accept a Nobel Peace Prize two minutes after moving into the White House, or another camera-ready egomaniac?
Only time will tell.
The only thing many of us political centrists are fairly sure of is that a magnificent orator, someone who is supposedly independent because of their self-funding candidacy, or an individual who can check a new demographic box for the history of the presidency isn’t required.
Sure, it’s ... nice ... that Castro could be the ethnic president who is palatable to a wide swath of the non-Hispanic electorate specifically because he’s so all-American. But, realistically, the mood among many of the liberals I come across is one of wide-eyed terror that the Democratic Party is staring down the barrel of another four years of a Trump presidency because no one with the juice to defeat him has, so far, emerged.
Though relevant experience, political savvy and an even keel sounds like the balm America needs in order to heal our deep partisan wounds, the Democratic presidential nominee will almost certainly be someone who can inspire breathless adoration.
And it’s easy to imagine a thoughtful, nice candidate getting ignored by a manic, social-media frenzied society that seems to valorize passion above all other qualities.
Ultimately, Julian Castro may only succeed in becoming another footnote in history -- added to the short list of Hispanic men who have strived for the highest office in the land -- but perhaps his overwhelming decency can help elevate the tone of our political discourse, at least for a little while.
And who knows? Maybe this time the nice guy won’t finish last. Stranger things have happened.