Sunday, 28 September 2014


Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, the Power of Thinking Without Thinking is about the remarkable accuracy of intuition. He explains how the first 2 seconds of a meeting convey impressions and hunches that can be more reliable that careful studies and conscious strategies. 

Voters’ decisions in local politics are likely to be intuitive. Campaigns do not really get underway until a week before an election. Under an at large system, a week is not much time to know much about dozens of candidates.

Chapter 3 of Blink is entitled, The Warren Harding Error. It describes why intuition sometimes goes wrong, particularly in politics.

The first president to visit Vancouver was Warren Harding. There are no statues of Lincoln or Roosevelt here but there is a statue of Harding in Stanley Park. Harding has been considered by historians to be one of the worst presidents in US history. He died shortly after his visit to Vancouver. 

Harry Daugherty, a lawyer and lobbyist, was the classic behind the scenes fixer and a shrewd judge of political opportunity. He ran into the 35 year old Harding while he was having his shoes shined. Daugherty took one look and concluded that he could make him president.

Harding  had it all...well almost all.  He had charm, looks and a great speaking voice. Also he was not very bright. As he rose from one local political office to another he remained safely undistinguished. His speeches were described as an army of phrases searching for an idea. As he grew older, however, he became better and better looking. He could have played Julius Caesar on the stage. Although Harding was unburdened by accomplishments, Daugherty persuaded him to run for the White House, believing that he would make "a great looking president."

So Harding got the Republican nomination and was elected. He was the first president to use modern public relations techniques. Five thousand speakers were trained  and sent abroad to speak for Harding; 2,000 of these speakers were women. Telemarketers were used to make phone conferences with perfected dialogues to promote Harding.

Gladwell states, "Many people who looked at Warren Harding saw how extraordinarily handsome and distinguished looking he was and jumped to the immediate and entirely unwarranted conclusion that he was a man of courage, intelligence and integrity. The way he looked carried so many powerful connotations that it stopped the normal process of thinking dead in its tracks.

The Warren Harding error is at the root of a good deal of prejudice and discrimination. It is why picking the right candidate for a job is so difficult and why on more occasions than we may care to admit, utter mediocrities sometimes end up in positions of enormous responsibility

Harding was loyal to his friends even though they were bad news. Of them he said, “I have no trouble with my enemies, but my damn friends, they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!"


He appointed many of his pals and campaign contributors to prominent political positions in control of vast amounts of government money and resources. They were a corrupt gang. Operating in secrecy, they negotiated leases and took gifts. 

One of his friends was ultimately convicted of accepting bribes and illegal no-interest personal loans in exchange for the leasing of public oil fields to business associates. Albert Fall was the first cabinet member in U.S. history imprisoned for crimes committed while in office. Charles Forbes, one of his buddies appointed to the department of Veteran Affairs received traveling perks and alcohol kickbacks, took a $5,000 bribe in Chicago, and made a secret code to sneak through $17 million in government construction hospital contracts with corrupt contractors.

Harding died a month after his visit to Vancouver. Some claimed it was food poisoning, others said it was suicide but recent evidence is that he had a serious heart condition that was misdiagnosed.

The secrecy unraveled and scandals and corruption came to light after he died.


There is no substitute for learning everything one can about the full slate of candidates. 

Our forthcoming Vancouver election will be a challenge if we accept Gladwell's observations. All candidates - not just Mayor Robertson - are  good looking people. The Harding effect can turn the election into a beauty pageant where the candidates compete making vacuous promises to bring world peace, to repeal the internal combustion engine and to always look  good in swim suits.

1 comment:

  1. Robertson in particular and Vision in general have a problem this time in that they have forced the electorate to "think" about just how deaf, blind, and dumb in the pejorative sense they have become in their growing arrogance.

    As a past supporter, I have been given a lot to think about, and it is definitely not pretty!

    Jim Howden

    West 16th Ave.