In this lesson, students examine the qualities of a politician to determine which characteristics the most effective political leaders possess.
The video clips provided with this lesson are from Koch, a film about Ed Koch, who served three terms as New York City mayor from 1978 to 1989. New York City mayors have a world stage on which to strut, and they have made legendary use of it. Yet few have matched the bravado, combativeness and egocentricity that Ed Koch brought to the office. As Neil Barsky's Koch recounts, Koch was more than the blunt, funny man New Yorkers either loved or hated. Elected in the 1970s during the city's fiscal crisis, he was a new Democrat for the dawning Reagan era--fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Koch finds the former mayor politically active to the end (he died in 2013)--still winning the affection of many New Yorkers while driving others to distraction.
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One 50-minute classroom period for the lesson; another for students to share their homework assignment.
- Determine which characteristics make a politician effective or ineffective
- Identify key characteristics of an effective politician and examine the efficacy of current political leaders based on this understanding
- Discuss what drives people's choices in electing political leaders
- Internet access and equipment to show the class online video
- LCD projector
- Self-adhesive chart paper
1. Have each student reflect on a politician he or she respects or supports and ask them to describe the qualities that contribute to their assessments of the people they chose. Record contributions and work with students to categorize the qualities. For example, honesty might be one, and under that would come associations such as truth, tells it like it is and so on. Additional categories include, but are not limited to, communication, intelligence, integrity, energy, decision making and stances on issues.
2. Ask students: In your opinion, what does it mean to be an effective politician? What should be some of the main goals of a politician? Then ask students what qualities might make a politician ineffective or effective. Record responses. Probe with students whether certain qualities, such as charisma or charm, make political leaders effective. Ask students whether it is possible to dislike a politician because of personality or presentation, but like or respect him or her as a leader (or vice versa).
3. Introduce and provide some background on Ed Koch (ask students if they know who he is and invite them to share what they know). Show Clip 1: Ed Koch (Length: 2:10)as a brief introduction to the former New York City mayor.
4. Tell students that they will view a few additional clips of Koch to determine his leadership qualities and explore whether he was effective as New York City mayor. Distribute "Qualities of a Politician." Review the instructions with the class and present the example. Students can fill in the sheet as they watch the clips, or, they can complete it as a class after they have discussed the clips. Show:
Clip 2: The Competent Candidate (Length: 1:28)
Clip 3: Political Personality (Length: 1:28)
Clip 4: The One Who Does It (Length: 0:30)
Clip 5: Bigger Than Life (Length: 1:09)
Clip 6: Battling Washington (Length: 1:50)
Clip 7: Making a Mistake (Length: 3:10)
Clip 8: The Opportunist (Length: 0:43)
5. After viewing, ask students the following discussion questions:
- How would you describe Ed Koch?
- Do you think he was an effective politician? An ineffective politician? Somewhere in between?
- What qualities do you think made him effective or ineffective? Explain.
- Analyze Koch's famous phrase "How am I doing?" As a political tactic, was it an effective way to solicit genuine feedback? How did he use the phrase to connect with people on the street? What role did it play in conveying his image as a "man of the people"? Who heard the phrase as a positive invitation to engage and who was alienated by it?
- What makes someone an effective leader? What does a person need to be able to do in order to be a strong politician?
- How does a politician's personality weigh into his or her popularity, compared to his or her stance on issues? How about family history and personal relations/connections?
- Can you think of other examples of politicians who have won public support or opposition based on their personal qualities more than their political actions?
- How do media portrayals affect public perception of politicians today? How does having politicians on talk shows and using social media impact public perception and decisions on election days?
6. Have students refer back to the politicians they named earlier and reflect on Koch. Discuss with students what they believe ultimately drives voters' choices of political leaders, and what people should focus on when deciding on the most effective leadership. When it comes to electing a political leader, on what should a person base his or her decision? Should that decision be based on charisma, communication skills and media presence, or the ability to lead and a stance on issues, or a combination of those things?
Instruct students to read "How to Judge a Candidate" and consider whether the qualities they identified in a political leader reflect or overshadow someone's ability to lead effectively. Then assign students to write persuasive essays in support of or opposition to leaders based on their qualities, as defined in the reading.
The Politics of Special Interest Groups
In the film, students learn about groups that can influence public and political agendas. These groups, sometimes known as special interest groups or SIGs, can be very powerful and often use that power to lobby politicians, steering their policy decisions one way or another, and to get certain candidates into office.
Students can explore the range of national SIGs, with emphasis on those that have a powerful role in national politics, and look at how they work.
Sites to jump-start this task include:
- Project Vote Smart: National Special Interest Groups
- American Government: Interest Groups
- The National Bureau of Economic Research: Special Interest Groups and Economic Policy
The film touches on socio-economic issues, such as homelessness, unemployment and AIDS, that affected New York City before and during Koch's tenure as mayor. These and related challenges continue to exist today. Have students explore an issue that affects their immediate community and research how politicians representing their community are addressing the issue. Students determine whether political efforts are alleviating the problem, whether politicians are making the right decisions with regard to the issue and how politicians can be influenced to improve the situation.
The Politician's Team
Behind the scenes, teams of people guide politicians, influencing what they say, how they behave and the decisions they make. From political strategists to speechwriters, these professionals play an integral role in a politician's impact and success. Instruct students to research and present on the various roles, starting with those presented in the film: political adviser, political strategist, press secretary, campaign manager, chief of staff and even friends and family. After these presentations, have students discuss why a politician needs a professional team to support him or her.
Ask students to select a local, state or national politician who represents their community, and explore who that person's key team members are and how they drive policy and budgets. Ask students to consider whether any of those team members have improved or damaged the politician's reputation and to explain how they have done so.