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Zen and the Art of Presidential Politics -- or Not

Michael Sigman: The only Zen you find in politics is the Zen in ironic headlines to show how little Zen there is there. I mean, they can't be serious. Can they?
Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson

The 2012 presidential election is still 18 months away, but political Zen abuse is already rampant.

In "The Zen of Gary Johnson," The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf asks the question on the mind of every policy wonk: Not "How do you handle the transformation of America from unrivaled superpower to stagnating Second World debtor nation?" but "What would it look like to have a Zen personality leading the executive branch?"

If you're not sure what "Zen" means in this context, ask Johnson himself. A former New Mexico governor and current dark horse Republican presidential hopeful, Johnson says, "I really think that life is about being in a state of Zen... If I might describe it for you, it's being in the moment. The thing that gets someone there might be music, art, golf, reading, writing. For me, I've found it in athletics. And I've also found it in politics." By Johnson's definition, you're Zen if you're a really focused cyber-flasher like Anthony Weiner or a buffoon like Donald Trump, whose world-class self-aggrandizement can only be maintained via laser-like concentration.

In fact, the word "Zen" has become almost meaningless, reducing the ancient practice to a mere advertising modifier. And not just recently. Jon Winokur's delightful 2005 book Zen to Go laments the abuse of the deeply spiritual word to hawk everything from Playtex Body Zen Soft Cup Bras to Zen Touch 20 Gigabyte MP3 Players to the cable TV show Divine Design, where an "out-of-date bathroom" was transformed into "a Zen-like oasis that will be strictly off limits to the kids."

The absurd association of Zen with U.S. presidents isn't new. In his 1998 treatise "Coolidge and the Zen of Politics," author Hendrik Booraem purports to show how the notoriously aloof Silent Cal "approached political performance in the spirit of a Zen master, detached from results, doing the thing for its own sake." Sorry, but Silent Cal doesn't mean Zen Cal: Coolidge shows up on most lists of the worst presidents in American history.

Many Zen-abusive headlines are inspired by Robert Pirsig's 1974 best-seller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. They include "Zen and the Art of Candidate Selection, "Zen and the Art of Understanding Mike Huckabee" and "Zen and The Art of Political Machine Maintenance."

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Other Zen zaniness comes from "The Zen of Political Nothingness," a Washington Times think piece about an omnibus spending package; "Mitt Romney, Zen Man and the Preacher in Chief," which notes that "Romney has shown the ability to do what Zen requests: see what is there and see nothing else"; "The Zen of Michelle Bachmann," which pokes fun at the congresswoman's " state of oxymoronic manic calm"; and the bloggy "Ron Paul -- Zen Master of Cool, Rational Debate."

On the Democratic side, political science professor Michael Haas's new book Barack Obama, The Aloha Zen President, argues that the President deserves Zen cred because he "governed almost mysteriously after taking office in 2009." In 2008, Dennis Kucinich was the designated faux Zen candidate: asked by one reporter if he meditated, Kucinich was described as "a Roman Catholic who often talks like a Zen Buddhist," and then quoted as saying, without irony, that "every waking moment is a meditation." After Obama won the election, Asian Nation honored the President-elect with, "Zen and the Art of Being President."


The Zennest presidential candidate in modern times was Jerry Brown, aka Governor Moonbeam. In "Zen and Art of Political Machine Maintenance," San Francisco Chronicle columnist Deborah Saunders writes that Brown, once again California's governor, qualifies as oh-so-Zen because, "Trying to figure out what Brown means is like trying to decipher the Da Vinci Code." Zen is enigmatic, but more often than not indecipherable statements are hard to fathom simply because they make no sense.

So how about a moratorium on the politicization of Zen? What we're looking for is authenticity, a goal Zen shares with most religions, systems of thought and plain common sense. Just last week, the senior staff of Newt Gingrich -- the least Zen politician around, except for maybe Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and the rest of the Republican field -- resigned en masse because the candidate forfeited his last shred of credibility when he disappeared on a luxury cruise after a spectacularly disastrous campaign rollout. (Pizza magnate Herman Cain is, at least, upfront about his anti-Muslim, anti-gay bigotry.)

Zen is by definition impossible to articulate, and when someone brags about being Zen, he isn't. Whatever one thinks about Gary Johnson the presidential candidate, the man conquered Mount Everest, an undeniably incredible feat. But next time he has the urge to wax philosophical about the Zen of mountain climbing, he might pause to consider Robert Pirsig's famous observation, "The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there."

michael sigman

Asked what he makes of all this, Winokur showed that the Pirsig is political. The go-to Zen To Go guy said, "The only Zen you find in politics is the Zen in ironic headlines to show how little Zen there is there. I mean, they can't be serious. Can they?"

Michael Sigman

Republished with permission from Huffington Post.