ZELINSKY: The age of personality

On Point

Ed Koch died last week. He will be buried today.

A former New York mayor who revitalized America’s greatest city, Koch was a larger-than-life personality. He had a signature catch phrase, “How am I doing?” and he was often blunt and undiplomatic. Two years ago, at a master’s tea in Jonathan Edwards, Koch called a student “stupid” without batting an eye.

An outpouring of emotion and media attention surrounds Koch’s death. In a way, when the nation mourns Koch, we mourn a type of politics that revolved not around parties but around charismatic leaders who captivated our imagination and loyalty.

The historian Warren Susman famously argued that America’s fascination with personalities emerged in the 20th century. We evolved from a 19th century culture defined by honor, integrity and reputation into a modern society intent on fame and uniqueness. Starting in the 1900s, we elected some distinctive personalities: Gun-toting, lion-killing Teddy Roosevelt; FDR, JFK and LBJ — each with his own three-letter acronym; Ronald Reagan, the epitome of political stardom. Ed Koch was such a 20th century personality, if there ever was one.

In the past few years it seems our nation has moved away from the politics of personality. Our leaders blend into a mirage of dark suits, solid ties and flag pins — all seemingly identical in fashion and habits. Only failed politicians stand out for their quirks: Sarah Palin, hunting wolves by helicopter in Alaska; Herman Cain, the godfather of pizza; Howard Dean and his infamous yell. The successful candidate shuns personality. President Obama is academic, clinical and straight-laced. Joe Biden, with all his F-bombs, might be the one exception to this rule — and the administration has tried to keep his expletives out of public view.

In the place of personality, 21st century leaders rely on ideology to define themselves. Their political affiliation becomes their identity. Without signatures of their own, politicians compete to become more dogmatic, more of an ideologue to differentiate their names from the herd. As a result, a Congress that needs to seek pragmatism and compromise on so many issues — gun control, debt and entitlements to name just three — instead divides itself into two political extremes. And the American people follow that divide, splinting into equally extreme camps in order to define their own identities.

In contrast, the 20th century Ed Koch famously knew compromise. Because he possessed his own personality distinct from politics, Koch never needed his party’s stamp of approval. He broke ranks with fellow Democrats to endorse Republicans, like President George W. Bush in 2004. Today, many commentators remember Koch for his intellectual humility — he was not afraid to admit when his policies failed and co-opt ideas from across the aisle. Koch was his own man who thought freely, precisely because he was more than a collection of political dogmas. He embodied a world without ideological litmus tests.

Koch’s death generates nostalgia for the old age of personality. While Americans know the 20th century had its elements of political extremism too (e.g. the ’60s), we can’t help but feel today’s gridlock is worse. There has to be some truth in the almost universal sense that the modern moment is uniquely and shrilly partisan.

So, in our leaders, we want to see those quirks and whimsical mannerisms that make someone a real person, not just a party hack. America wants those little affectations like Harry Truman’s hat or John F. Kennedy’s thick Boston accent. We desire politicians who have their own identity, not merely those who regurgitate a fixed ideology. The folks in Washington should take note.

Rest in peace, Mayor Koch. And may future statesmen channel your personality.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinksy@yale.edu .

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