Dispatches | January 28, 2008

As someone who heard throughout high school and college, “you’re nicer than I thought you were,” I grieve a little for Hillary Clinton every time a political analyst or primary voter brings up the L word-likeability-to say that she ain’t got it. 

At my high school in rural Missouri in the early 1980s, a rather average looking, mediocre student named Jody was voted “most popular” three years in a row.  Her secret?  She carried to all her classes a Tupperware container of snicker doodles.  Happily she gave a cookie to anyone who asked.  Her culinary altruism achieved her celebrity.  A picture of Jody was published on the front page of the local paper.  Sitting cross legged on the counter in the home economics room, she waved with her oven-mitted hand, while in the other she held a heaping plate of cookies. 

Today, running for president so resembles a high school popularity contest that perhaps Clinton’s advisors should take a lesson from Jody and dress Hillary up in a gingham apron and paper the world with images of her baking Tollhouse cookies. 

What is likeability anyway?  Lately, I’ve been canvassing people for an answer. 

I asked my dental hygienist what she thought it meant.  She blushed; she didn’t know. 

“I guess it means being nice.  You know, kind,” she finally said before the sonic pick hit my tooth with its fingernail-on-chalkboard screech.  The conversation was over.  I don’t suppose likeable people ambush others with unexpected questions.   

I appreciate my gynecologist precisely because she isn’t likeable.  She’s brusque, efficient and knows her business.  She doesn’t put a lot of truck in small talk, nor do I.  I’d never think to ask her what it means to be liked.

Supposedly, for decades Johnny Carson was the most likeable man on television.  His popularity stemmed from the sense that he really listened to his guests and let them shine.  He was admired in the industry for putting others before his show-biz self.

But he wasn’t always a sweetheart (just ask his four former wives).  As a kid staying up late to watch The Tonight Show, I liked him most when his likeable façade fell away, revealing a glimpse of the real Carson, slightly bent, a little wicked. 

The moment I loved most was the night Raquel Welch came out on stage with a cat in tow.  As she stroked it in her lap on the couch beside Johnny, she asked him, “Would you like to pet my pussy.”

“Sure,” he said.  “If you move the cat.”

I’ve noticed that once my students become comfortable around me, they think it’s in my best interest to know their first impressions.  As in high school and college, I remain cursed to hear that I take a little time to get used to, that first impressions are not my strength.  One of them explained:  “I didn’t get you at first” and “you’re so hard to read.”  Their revised opinion often sounds like an adopt-a-pet description:  warm, fun, easy to be around.  During thirty years of teaching, my husband has never had to endure such analysis.  Unfortunately, likeability is a particularly female burden.

We tend to resort to easy forms of judgment.  Yet, I’d never let my students talk about a novel or movie in terms of whether they liked it or not.  By the time they are in college, they realize that liking or disliking is the lowest form of analysis available to a critic.  So why do we too often resort to it when discussing our politicians?

Over breakfast this morning, I looked across the kitchen table to my husband and asked, “Am I likeable?” and he said with the same glibness Obama offered Hillary, “You’re likeable enough.”  He smiled.  In our world it’s the “enough” that’s the compliment.