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Arguable with Jeff Jacoby

Elizabeth Warren and the unlikable her.

Senator Elizabeth Warren waved to the crowd during an organizing event at Curate event space in Des Moines, Iowa.
Senator Elizabeth Warren waved to the crowd during an organizing event at Curate event space in Des Moines, Iowa. Matthew Putney/AP

In the Arguable e-mail newsletter, columnist Jeff Jacoby offers his take on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day. Sign up here.

For as long as I have been following politics, the “likeability” of political candidates, especially presidential hopefuls, has been a subject of interest. It stands to reason that candidates in a democracy will often be judged on their personality, real or perceived. At the same time, for every analyst or partisan pointing to likeability as an advantage, others will insist it ought to be irrelevant. A quick search through the archive turns up innumerable examples. At the risk of overkill, here are a dozen:

May 1988: “President Ronald Reagan is a likeable man but an ineffectual leader who is almost incapable of focusing on issues, says Chrysler Corporation chairman Lee Iacocca. . . .” (Business Times)


October 1988: “[Michael] Dukakis, who has been dogged by his image as a technocrat and the ‘ice man’ . . . was asked if it was necessary to be likeable in order to be an effective president. The Democratic nominee responded that he considers himself ‘a reasonably likeable guy,’ but said he also is ‘a serious guy.’” (UPI)

March 1992  : “The leading candidates in the Democratic race for president, Paul Tsongas and Bill Clinton, not only disagree about some issues but have personalities that are like night and day. . . . Tsongas is the quiet kid you met in the library, working on calculus and wearing a pocket protector. . . . Clinton was the guy who took you out for the most romantic evening of your life, the one you'll remember when you're 80. . . . Considering how long we are stuck with our presidents, a candidate's likeability should be taken into account.” (Ellen Debenport,  St. Petersburg Times

March 1996: “Senator Dole is well qualified as a legislator and administrator and has a public record to be proud of, certainly far better than Mr. Clinton or Mr. Perot, let alone the other Republican hopefuls. But Americans want to like their President, not just admire him, and in the likeability contest, Senator Dole hasn't a hope.” (Patrick Brogan,Glasgow Herald

July 1996: “Although Clinton beats Dole handily on who's most likeable, understanding, and in touch with average Americans, Dole remains well ahead of the president when voters are asked to grade the candidates on strength, effectiveness, and trustworthiness.” (Elizabeth Arnold, NPR) 

March 2000: “Former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes . . . said [George W.] Bush would probably emerge as a ‘more likeable’ person than Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic Party's candidate.” (Agence France-Presse) 

May 2000: “Though [pollster Robert] Teeter agreed that a strong economy was a major factor in retaining a president or his party, he said the most ‘likeable’ candidate had won most postwar elections.” (Adam Clymer,  New York Times

October 2000: “Even Tipper Gore picked up the theme, suggesting her husband is the only candidate in the race with the experience and judgment to be president. She said that is more important than which candidate is more likeable: ‘It's not "The Dating Game," you know. You don't have to fall in love with Al Gore. I did that.’” (CNN) 

October 2004: “Voters find Bush the more likeable candidate, propelling the president ahead of his rival 52 percent to 44 percent among likely voters.” (Jim Bishop,  New York Post

June 2007: “Why do Democrats keep losing the ‘Who would you most like to have a beer with’ question? It’s about who connects with you as a fellow American. Why did a conservative Republican like George W. Bush come out better than the Democratic candidate when people were asked, ‘If your car broke down on the roadside, who would stop and help you?’” (Chris Matthews, MSNBC) 

March 2012: “Why Isn't Romney 'Likeable Enough'?” (J. Ann Selzer, Politico) 

February 2015: “Ever since I started covering national presidential campaigns for  U.S. News  in 1988, the more likeable candidate has won. It was Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012; Obama over John McCain in 2008; George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004; Bush over Al Gore in 2000; Bill Clinton over Bob Dole in 1996; Clinton over George H.W. Bush in 1992, and George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis in 1988. Before that, Ronald Reagan was more likeable than Walter Mondale in 1984 and Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Reagan won both times.” (Kenneth Walsh,US News & World Report)

 As all these examples make clear, not only have political commentators and practitioners routinely taken up the issue of likeability in White House campaigns, they have nearly always done so in the context of discussing men. And no one has ever suggested or imagined that to talk about a candidate’s ability to connect with voters at a personal level is in any way to attack males or to hold them and their sex to an unfair standard. The idea that “likeability” is some sort of code word for a sexual double standard is laughably absurd. Or it was, until five minutes ago. Almost as soon as Senator Elizabeth Warren last week announced that she was running for her party’s 2020 presidential nomination, a flurry of commentators rushed to declare that any talk of Warren’s likeability deficit was sexist. 

Is Likeability in Politics Sexist? Yes. It’s Also Outdated,” declared the headline on a New York Times analysis by Lisa Lerer. In GQ, Luke Darby proclaimed that “it’s hard to ignore the sexist angle” in any discussion of whether Warren tends to be liked by ordinary voters. “When we talk or write about the personalities of male politicians,” he declared in a clanging demonstration of fake news, “the word likeable never comes up.” Over on NBC’s website, Ashton Pittman huffed that it was “particularly pernicious” to evaluate women’s likeability, and decried “the hypocrisy of the likeability metric” when applied to female candidates. 

Especially bizarre was a tweet by the president of NARAL: “Since ‘unlikeable’ is quite obviously a synonym in politics for ‘strong, bright, and passionate woman,’ let's all be unlikeable, shall we?” 

All this whining and special pleading may be ridiculous, but Warren was happy to fan the flames. As soon as Politico published an articleon whether the Massachusetts senator’s likeability deficit would doom her candidacy before it got off the ground, the Warren campaign released a stinging letter mocking it as an example of the “beard-stroking opinion pieces” and the “she-can-never-win garbage churned out by the Republican propaganda machine.” For good measure, the campaign also used it as fundraising bait

Pretty cynical. Then again, in politics anything goes — and it’s always easy for partisans to see what they want to see. So brace for more hair-twirling opinion pieces pushing the daft claim that the hurdle of “likeability” is something only women have to deal with.

Reporting in the Boston Globe  about Warren’s allies rushing to circle the wagons, my colleague Stephanie Ebbert quoted “campaign specialists” who agreed that it’s so darned sexist and mean to consider whether a female candidate has a knack for connecting with voters: 

“It seems like it’s an inherent bias,” said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. “In an ideal world, women should be allowed to run as candidates and be judged on the same merits and their experience as men are. Seeing this type of dialogue literally a day after a candidate announces was not surprising when you look at previous conversations, but after such a positive 2018, it’s disappointing.” . . .
To campaign players like [Democratic strategist Mary Anne] Marsh, the focus on “likeability” feels depressingly familiar.“There’s a certain kind of attack and criticism that is reserved for women in politics,” she said. “And that strategy should not be rewarded by voters or the media or anyone.”
 But as long as the bottom line for any candidate is to get elected, the ability to relate to voters will matter hugely. And as Kenneth Walsh pointed out in the February 2015 excerpt I quoted above, presidential hopefuls who aren’t warm or likeable tend not to get elected. That was true for Dole, Dukakis, Kerry, and Mondale. And it was true — twice — for the “likeable enough” Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, in 1968 the dour and dyspeptic Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey, one of the sunniest “happy warriors” in American political history. There is no foolproof formula to running for president. Likeability is one ingredient in national campaigns, but it isn’t the only one, or the most important. So is Elizabeth Warren likeable enough? The earliest poll soundings haven’t been encouraging, but who knows what voters will think of her next month or next year? When she first got into politics, she was regarded as something of a progressive rock star, and left-wing ideologues swooned over her extremist class-war rhetoric. If it wasn’t sexist then to trumpet her appeal to Massachusetts voters, it isn’t sexist now to analyze her possible lack of appeal to voters nationwide. Is it too much to ask that liberals not play the “sexism” card until there’s actually something sexist to object to?

On Capitol Hill, diversity of belief

In the ways that matter most, the newly installed 116th Congress is one of the most diverse institutions in America. I don’t mean diverse in the skin-deep sense of race and sex, although it is certainly true that many members of Congress are nonwhite (21 percent, according to Politico   ) and female (23 percent). Rather, Congress is remarkably diverse in political outlook — after all, it is split roughly down the middle between Democrats (who have a modest majority in the House) and Republicans (who narrowly control the Senate). Congress comprises lots of Republicans and Democrats? Well, duh — that’s an observation worthy of Captain Obvious . Think about it, though: Where else in American life do you find such ideological dissimilarity? Certainly not in academia, in the mainstream media, or in the entertainment industry. If Congress does nothing else, which is often the case, it at least demonstrates that it is possible for liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, to come together as colleagues and manage their affairs peacefully. There is another way in which Congress reflects admirable diversity of belief: the array of religions to which its members belong.


Every two years the Pew Research Center tallies up the religious composition of Congress . That composition has been growing steadily less monolithic. Of the 535 members in the new House and Senate, 293 are Protestant, 163 are Catholic, 34 are Jewish, 10 are Mormon, five are Orthodox Christian, three are Muslim, three are Hindu, and two are Unitarian. One member (Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) is not affiliated with any religion; another 18 members declined to respond to Pew’s survey. In percentage terms, Congress’s religious composition doesn’t match that of the US public, which contains considerably fewer Christians, somewhat fewer Jews, and many more unaffiliated “nones.” Nevertheless, it is the most religiously diverse Congress in American history — even more so when you realize that the largest component, Protestants, is made up of a dozen quite different religious traditions, from Anglicans to Adventists and from Pentecostalists to Presbyterians.

The US Capitol in Washington, D.C.
The US Capitol in Washington, D.C.Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Again, this is something Americans take for granted. For more than two centuries, Article VI, Clause 3 of the Constitution has ensured that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” What could be more normal? But in much of the world, nothing could be more abnormal. Christians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, atheists and Mormons, all serving as equals in the highest lawmaking body of the land? This is one thing Americans manage to do right, and we should pause now and then to appreciate it.


We are reminded constantly these days of the intense differences that separate us, and of how polarized and tribal our politics have become. Members of the 116th Congress will not lack for abundant reasons to quarrel and feud and rebuke each other. At times, members may insult or express hostility for the values some of their colleagues embrace. But one thing they almost surely won’t do is fight about their religious differences. In other times and other places, such differences would have fueled bloody violence and irrevocable enmity. Here, we take them as normal. Our Constitution bars the establishment of any particular religion while upholding the free exercise of them all. The result is America’s religious pluralism — amazingly diverse, blessedly peaceful.

Geeks just wanna have fun

When we were kids, my brother and I for a while had a running argument about which was more important, language and the humanities or math and science. It was, needless to say, a dumb debate. Human flourishing is dependent on both right-brain and left-brain knowledge — many of our species’ greatest leaps forward have been achieved with words and images, while others, just as extraordinary and magical, would not have been possible without numbers. Unlike my brother, who became a chemist and is now a writer for a prominent scientific journal, I don’t normally have much occasion to hold forth on mathematics. I can’t recall ever writing a column on a math-related topic. And once my kids began studying trigonometry in high school, my ability to help them with math homework went pffft. But even if I’ve never had a head for numbers more advanced than the calculations required to balance a checkbook and do my taxes, every now and then I like to savor at least a whiff of more advanced math. Some years back I read with pleasure the wonderful “mathematical novel” by Gaurav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal, A Certain Ambiguity . Though the story centered on a 1919 blasphemy trial in New Jersey, most of the book actually involved discussions of certainty in mathematics, with a great deal to say about Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry, proofs of the Pythagorean theorem, and Georg Cantor’s set theory. I can’t say I grasped all the math, which played out in considerable detail, but I found the experience of reading the novel both enjoyable and uplifting. It afforded me a heady taste of knowledge I rarely encounter. By the time I reached the last page I felt both more knowledgeable and more ignorant than I had been when I started. All of which is by way of sharing with you a delightful essay posted on Bloomberg just as 2018 was coming to a close: “This Was a Great Year to Be a Math Geek,” exulted Scott Duke Kominers, a 20-something professor at the Harvard Business School and an associate at the university’s Center for Research on Computation and Society. Here’s how it begins: For math geeks like me, 2018 was a banner year: Not only was it a year in which the field’s top prize was awarded, it was the only year in this century featuring days lining up with both the Golden ratio, an elegant proportion found throughout art and nature, and the mathematical constant e, which is at the core of calculus. But the mathematician in me also can’t help but note that the number 2,018 has some ominous properties: It’s  deficient , meaning that the sum of all its positive divisors is less than itself. And it’s also  odious , meaning that it has an odd number of ones in its binary expansion, 11111100010. This year is pretty cryptic, as well -- it features prominently in the first of the three Beale ciphers, an 1880s cryptographic puzzle that supposedly describes the location of a multimillion-dollar treasure. (Hint: check the cipher’s second line.)  Kominers continues in that vein, erudite and charming and fun-loving. If he’s as entertaining in the classroom as he is in his writing, his students must love him. I urge you to read the whole essay (and then you too will know why 2019 is an apocalyptic power).


Site to see

Amid the internet’s vast ocean of drivel, some websites are alluring islands of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I call attention to one of these online treasures.


My house is filled with books, and these days I’m more likely to spend time in bookstores than in libraries. In my childhood, though, libraries were a cherished home away from home.If you cherish them too, you might like this week’s Site to See: Library Planet [URL: https://libraryplanet.net/], which is described by its founder as “a crowdsourced Lonely Planet for libraries of the world ” and a “traveling blog for the library tourist.” The site consists of descriptions of libraries around the globe — only 30 so far, but with more to come as users send them in. To date, most of the featured libraries are in Europe. They include the National Library of Latvia, which is housed in an architecturally beautiful “castle of light,” the Aarhus University Library in Denmark, whose basement features a ping-pong table in a large glass cage, and The Word in South Tyneside, England, which is set in an unusual round building manufactured from materials and in colors meant to evoke coal, salt, glass, and stone — the mainstays of the region’s industrial heritage.

Anyone can contribute to Library Planet; the site invites users to share pictures and descriptions of unusual, beautiful, or otherwise memorable libraries they have encountered in their travels. One reader, Claire Sewell, contributed an entry on the Morrin Center in Quebec City, Canada. Here is her account: Originally built as a military barracks in 1712, it became a prison in 1813 and was refurbished to house Morrin College in 1862. In 1868 it also became home to the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, and the library was established at this time.

My husband and I visited the Morrin Centre because we had read about the beautiful library online. I also discovered an ancestor, Jonathan Sewell, during our time in the city. Sewell was a lawyer and judge who helped establish the Society, and he served as its president from 1830-31. As a librarian myself, it was a great thrill to discover this and to find his portrait at the Morrin Centre. . . The library maintains a well rounded collection that even includes many older books still in circulation. For instance, I came across an original copy of The Complete Book of Cats with photographs by Walter Chandoha from 1957. It still included the date due slips in the back with stamps throughout the years!

Library Planet has great potential. I look forward to seeing its content expand with descriptionssupplied  by authors, artists, and scholars whose researches take them to the world’s great and gorgeous libraries.

Recommend a website for this feature! Send me the link and a short description (jeff.jacoby@globe.com), and put “Site to See” in the subject line.


My Sunday column dissected an analogy frequently made by supporters of Donald Trump’s proposed border wall: Just as private citizens lock their homes against intruders, the United States should “lock” its borders. It’s a badly flawed comparison. The most obvious disconnect is that homes are private property, over which owners have total control. But the nation is no one’s private chattel. Indeed, much of it is public property. No property owner can put up a wall to block a highway or a park. Moreover, homeowners can exclude outsiders from theirhouse, but they have no right to exclude visitors from a neighbor’s home or business. But that’s just what a border wall does — by barring peaceable foreigners who would otherwise get jobs, purchase goods, or raise families with US citizens, a “locked” border blatantly interferes in the lives of countless American men and women.

Last Wednesday, in my first column of the new year, I reminded readers of the fallibility of experts. In newspaper columns, radio talk shows, and TV news broadcasts, experts are routinely trotted out to forecast future developments. Yet their prophecies are consistently wrong. Which is something worth remembering when you listen to smart and savvy people confidently telling you what to expect in the days, weeks, and months to come.

The last line

“He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.” — Leo Tolstoy,The Death of Ivan Ilyich  (1886)

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.