efore entering the Mos Eisley Cantina in “Star Wars,” Obi-Wan Kenobi warns us that we’ll “never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Yet the warning only primes our hearts with fearful delight. We look forward to the presence of danger and deviance. We crave the excess, the new, the unconventional, and the bizarre.
Take Donald Trump. Trump has taken us to an unknown galaxy, one in which an aspiring president of the United States can insult seemingly wide bands of constituents yet still elicit high praise among some of them. His style is so outrageous that we’re captivated by a creation that seems to thrive outside the traditional (and universally disliked) domain of politicians.
Yet few of us would choose to walk into a real Mos Eisley Cantina if all we wanted was a drink. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, we’d first have to be up against a life-and-death situation, one in which our lives and civilization were at risk.
This is arguably one of those times. Kicking and screaming, we’ve been dragged near to the time when we’ll have to contemplate choosing the next American president. It may not be life or death but the stakes are high. With that in mind, let’s pause to consider what the next president’s qualifications should be.
A recent theater experience I had might be helpful. In August I spent a week among friends at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival watching all kinds of performances. We saw Simon McBurney’s “The Encounter,” which uses binaural technology to take audiences on a metaphysical journey; “Hotel Paradiso,” in which the Famile Flöz shows the wonders of masked theater; “Antiwords,” inspired by the works of Vaclav Havel (one part featuring outrageous drunken debauchery by the Spitfire Company, a Czech theater group).
“Antiwords” begins with two modern and stylish actresses onstage. They each don identical gold-colored head masks to give the illusion that they’re two downtrodden men, a brewer and an ignorant, persecuted politician who live under postwar Czech communism. The two “men” drain mug after mug of beer, spilling it recklessly. By the end, drunkenness has obliterated the psychological need to dwell on the bleak reality of daily life. That actresses play the men illuminates Havel’s critique of the foolish and tragic duality of male dominance and repression.
As a group, precisely because of its portrayal of excesses, we voted “Antiwords” as our favorite. Using the unexpected, the actresses shattered theatrical conventions. They thrilled us by being completely out of bounds.
Days later, however, despite the power of that show’s irreverence, I thought back to a quieter piece by Marcia Ferguson, one of the friends who joined me in Edinburgh. Ferguson runs the theatre arts department at the University of Pennsylvania. In the piece, “Ursula Invents Old Woman,” Ferguson, a veteran actress and teacher, played Ursula, became Ursula, transcending the person I know in a convincing and effortless performance.
Ferguson’s acting taught two lessons. The first is the importance of preparation. The more natural and seamless a work, the more likely intense work has gone in to making it feel that way. These principles of refinement, rehearsal and practice also hold true for musicians, painters, engineers or doctors — as they should for would-be presidents.
Thanks to Silvio Berlusconi, Italy learned this lesson the hard way. Voters repeatedly fell for conveniently and casually put together promises of a better life, overblown pledges that never materialized. Italy still endures the malaise created by Berlusconi’s failures and his inability to provide substantive leadership. He led with empty words, not viable planning. He was an ingeniously clever politician artful in winning favor and retaining power, a man built from self-interest. Trump seems hatched from the same mold.
Government and management of public policy are sciences. They are also disciplines. Knowing how to apply them and use them properly should be a basic element in the résumé of any presidential candidate. Show me one candidate who’s demonstrated a lifetime of skilled public service and I’ll put his or her CV on the pile of those who may get my vote.
As U.S. election vitriol starts rising to the surface, I say this: let’s focus first on the experience necessary to hold the job of president. Charisma can wait. The quality of president voters eventually get will be determined by the extent to which they’re willing to put in the time and energy necessary to check and reflect on the credentials of the various candidates.
Whether on stage or real life, you need to know what you want. If you want to destroy the Death Star, you need to take a deep breath, enter the cantina, put aside the carnival colors, and pay careful attention to who might really help your cause. Then and only then do you stand any chance of figuring out who might be your Han Solo.