“If monarchs have little sympathy with mankind, mankind have even less with monarchs. They are merely to us a sort of state-puppets or royal waxwork, which we may gaze at with superstitious wonder, but have no wish to become . . . .” — William Hazlitt, On Personal Identity.
Why would anyone wish to become president? On the face of it, the highest office that we were told anyone could aspire to and some could attain, is a thankless job. Daily the president is assailed on all sides, sometimes by his own kind, but relentlessly by the disloyal opposition. When he does something that approximates the right thing to do, someone—Charles Krauthammer, most likely—will thunder from the Washington Post and George Will will mutter and mewl. Everything he says and does is subject to the kind of scrutiny usually reserved for “persons of interest” by the FBI or Kim Kardashian.
Of course, anyone in that position should expect that they’ll be held “accountable”—our favorite euphemism for who is to blame—but the accountability factor often becomes a political football and a blanket term for general dissatisfaction. We don’t often hear that someone is held to be responsible, perhaps because that implies actions governed by ethics rather than just a faux economic term.
William Hazlitt, writing in the early 19th century, had in mind kings and princes when he disavowed any interest in changing places with them, but his words could apply almost as well with the office of the President. In a way we ask the impossible of our presidents. We expect them to be extraordinary communicators who can talk to anybody—Saudi princes or Joe the Plumber, pizza makers or heads of state. We expect them to have the intel at their fingertips to make a definitive statement on horrific acts that are still unfolding. And we believe that everything that happens between their inauguration and their reelection—or defeat—is a direct result of some action they’ve taken or left out.
They must be one of us, yet without our annoying and petty grievances. They should be smart enough to solve world economic problems but they shouldn’t be tarred as one of the ’Harvard elite.’ We ask them to maintain America’s dominance by any means necessary but we don’t want to pay for it. We want them to tell the truth but we don’t want to hear it.
There are a number of reasons why a person might want to be president. First, they want the perks and the power. It’s not the money: the President makes $400,000 per year plus expenses. The CEO of Goldman Sachs made $16.5 million in 2011; John Hammergren of McKesson made $131.19 million in a recent year. But they get the use of a plane, Air Force One, a helicopter, Marine One, a nice place in the country—Camp David—and a tony address in downtown Washington. They’re referred to as “the most powerful person in the world,” and people wave as they drive by in motorcades.
Another reason is that they might be driven to accomplish what few people do—make it to the top in a profession. If you’re a lawyer I suppose the Supreme Court would be your last and best job offer. Some academics aspire to be presidents of universities, actors to win Oscars, and athletes to compete and win in the Olympics, the Superbowl or the World Cup. And politicians want the White House. Lyndon Johnson ran for the Vice Presidency, not because he wanted it, but because his mentor, Sam Rayburn, couldn’t bear the thought of Richard Nixon getting it. In time and tragically, Johnson got his turn and his term, a position he’d been climbing toward since his early days as a Texas congressman. Bill Clinton found his inspiration in a meeting with President Kennedy as a teenager. Kennedy himself was groomed for the presidency by his father, so the legend goes.
And no doubt there are those who believe they might do some good, might shape the events of history toward justice or freedom or prosperity. We believe them enough to elect them but we doubt them before they are done. “Why will Mr. Cobbett persist in getting into Parliament?”, asked Hazlitt about a perennial candidate. “He would find himself no longer the same man.” There’s the rub: if you’re man (or woman) enough for the job are you willing to pay the price?
The price is literally in the millions. Some estimates put the total cost of the 2012 election at over $5 billion, an obscene amount for the return on investment. At least three times a week I get an urgent email from Democratic headquarters: for a mere $3 I can help turn the tide and rout the Republican berserkers. The money will go, I am assured, to paying for ads to refute the latest lies the Romney camp is spouting. Money for truth. . . .
To run, to put yourself and your family through the merciless gauntlet of American public opinion, you’ve got to have a massive ego, strong enough to withstand the constant criticism, supple enough to dodge the blows and yet deep enough to listen to counsel. You have to realize that you ran to make a solid difference in the world, but now it’s not about you, but the myriad powers that be. And if you have anything different to say about it you’d better be sure the mic isn’t hot and it’s off the record. Because you didn’t get there on your own. There are many who put you there for reasons of their own, reasons that will demand a return on their investment.
But at the end of the day, climbing the stairs to bed like any other person, can you look back on your efforts that day and feel like you rolled the rock up the mountain with purpose and intention? Can you be glad for small victories and brush off the defeats? If you’ve got the ego strength and the humility to realize that the hinge of history may not turn on your command, but you might have pushed the door open just a bit wider for Goodness—then may you sleep well.