As we near the 2019 Democratic debates, I clearly remember one January 2008 Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire — the site of the headline-making exchange between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The moderator asked Clinton whether she thought she had enough personal appeal to win over voters. But before she could answer, Obama broke in saying, “You’re likable enough.”
Evidently, enough voters thought Obama’s comment insensitive, and Clinton won the state’s primary a few days later. Nevertheless, as we know, Obama won the general election — twice. And to this day, polls show him as an extremely likable ex-president, along with Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
Likability has become an even more important trait today as we see the president of the United States hurling abusive insults at nearly everyone — near and far.
At Maryland’s Towson Town Center, where I walk for exercise, 87-year-old Marty Martinez is very likable. He is known as “the mayor,” since he is there nearly every morning, sitting on the same chair at the same table across from Starbucks. In addition to greeting everyone, in a perennial good mood, Marty reaches out to people of all ages. For example, last year when he discovered that a young worker at Starbucks had just graduated from college and would be spending a year teaching English in Madrid, Marty took the young man with his girlfriend to dinner at a local Spanish restaurant to introduce him to the country’s cuisine.
Then there is Sonny, who, when he’s not whizzing by at the mall (no one could keep up with him), volunteers at Sinai Hospital. Without breaking stride, he always greets me and others by name. Of course, there also is a woman who usually walks alone, looking angry and greeting no one. And there are others who only talk to one or two people.
But the world would be a lot nicer if there were more people like Marty, or Doug, another walker, who worked in the city’s parks and recreation department before he retired. During intermission at a recent concert, while Doug’s wife Florence and I chatted, Doug was greeting what seemed like half the audience — those he knew and, I am sure, others he didn’t.
On a broader stage, there was the wonderful news photo of likability from last November showing French President Emmanuel Macron sitting next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Although Macron has his hand on Merkel’s knee, this is not a #MeToo moment. They are facing each other, obviously in deep conversation, and Merkel is grinning. Next to them, President Donald Trump, his hands clasped in his lap, looks angrily into the distance, while first lady Melania Trump looks totally bored.
As for Macron and Merkel, international allies should share a close relationship — a genuinely friendly relationship. Whether it was during the aftermath of 9/11 or our various wars, we have always depended upon our allies to help us. Unfortunately, Trump has managed to alienate our allies, preferring not-so-likable dictators such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
What makes someone more likable than someone else? When it comes to the British royals, rumor has it that the queen slightly prefers granddaughter Prince Harry’s wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, to Prince William’s wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. Both young women are beautiful and educated. Perhaps Meghan, once a popular TV and film actress, is more outgoing? Or, as the daughter of a black mother and a white father, does she have more empathy?
Basically, most people like others who are kind and caring, who are honest and loyal, who are tolerant, who are helpful, and who always have a ready smile. Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s 1965 song says: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Today, in 2019, I think likability would do as well.
Lynne Agress teaches in the Odyssey program at Johns Hopkins University. She is also president of BWB, Business Writing At Its Best Inc.