Once upon a time in a twinkling city on a hill, little boys and girls were taught that anyone could grow up to become president.
The children all believed it, and today many of them are trying to fulfill the promise. While it has been proved true that anyone can become president, it has also been proved even more true that most shouldn’t.
Including, sad to say, more than a few on the debate stage at the Reagan Library on Wednesday night.
To each his own motivation, but sane people routinely ask themselves: Why would anyone want this job? We’ve witnessed what the office does to a person — graying temples, deepening lines and sagging shoulders. Do the pomp, chauffeurs, chefs, private jets and post-presidency speaking fees really compensate for the assault on one’s privacy, loss of freedom and terrible burden of worldly woes? Probably.
But the question — Why do you want to be president? — is worth asking each candidate. Why, indeed. We can predict most of the answers, none of which will be remotely true.
“We need to make America great again and I’m your man,” seems to be a favorite. “It’s time to take our country back, and when I was governor, I blahblahblah.” Or, “It’s time for a nonpolitician.”
But for many, running for president is The Next Thing. After you’ve saved lives, built hotel empires, been secretary of state or a governor, what’s next?
It is a fine thing to reach the summit of one’s aspirations. But governance isn’t easy. And effective leadership doesn’t necessarily convey to the White House from the boardroom or surgical ward — or the gilded world of luxury hotels.
This isn’t to suggest that professional politicians are better qualified than others (necessarily), though it’s likely some are. Nor is it axiomatic that distance from the political class makes someone a better choice just because he/she hasn’t a clue how Washington works.
Knowing nothing — or having no relationships with those you’re hoping to lead toward productive alliances — is hardly a recommendation for the job. This should go without saying were we not at this silly moment when the nation seems primed to favor the rabble-rousingest purveyor of emotional potions and fantastical fixes.
Billionaires have too much money, says Democratic candidate and socialist Bernie Sanders. Agreed. I should be a billionaire, too. But do others’ billions prevent me from accruing my own? Only to the extent that their wisdom stops short of employing my talents.
Donald Trump doesn’t like American cars being manufactured in other countries? What would President Trump do? Slap a $35 tariff on each car and part, he exclaims to applause. But there’s this little hitch called the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power to levy taxes, and the small matter of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which forbids what Trump proposes.
Facts don’t matter, apparently, when voters are determined to evict those who have made the government dysfunctional. Frustration noted. But wasn’t the last elected president an outlier who was largely unqualified and had no talent for “politics”?
Often, the best leader is the reluctant one, who, like George Washington, wishes he weren’t the people’s choice. He knows from experience the burdens of leadership and humbly recognizes his own limitations. It is duty that draws him out.
We live in a different world, and the medium has become the message.
It is up to us, therefore, to listen carefully to the candidates and ask ourselves, why? The answer to this question — more than the how of policy — may help you sort things out.