The presidential election of 2008 is over a year away, and perhaps thatâ€™s a good thing. The reason: we still need time to identify someone who is truly an outstanding candidate for the office of president. Yes, there are loyalists who will quickly say we already have such a person, then name one of the current contenders. But when one looks at the leading occupants of the White House in past glory years, this termâ€™s cast of players appears somewhat less than remarkable.
So far, the headlines have gone to the candidates who appear to be raising the most money. That would be Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the moment. Meanwhile, a few candidates on both sides appear to be dissolving away, like the smoke ring from a cigar. Lack of substance is the operative term here.
If one doubts for a moment that outstanding candidates are in short supply, one merely needs to run down a list of past presidents of some standing. Arthur Schlesinger wrote about American presidents for most of his life. A few years ago, he drew up a ranking of presidents, based on critical evaluations by leading historians and other notable students of presidential leadership. To no oneâ€™s surprise, the leading candidates on the list were Lincoln, Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Commenting on this field of honored commanders-in-chief, Schlesinger noted that all of our great presidents “possess or are possessed by, a vision of an ideal America. Their passion is to make sure the ship of state (a metaphor coined by another great historian, Henry Adams) sails on the right course. If that course is indeed right, it is because they have an instinct for the dynamics of history.”
A word of caution: todayâ€™s roster of declared candidates is peppered with less than perfect aspirants. Some have had marriage problems, some have taken divisive positions on “third rail” issues, some are patently vain and self-centered to a fault, and some have jumped ship or changed courses (see above), or are otherwise visibly flawed. If we examine with equal detail the lives of our “best” past presidents, we find that they too have certain concealed anxieties. Consider Jeffersonâ€™s dalliance with Sally Hemings, Trumanâ€™s brief association with the Klan, Kennedyâ€™s romantic liaisons, and so on. On a different tack, many regarded Theodore Roosevelt as lacking maturity. The British ambassador once called him “an arrested 11-year-old.”
Even if we give todayâ€™s presidential office seekers a “pass” on certain character flaws, can they then measure up to the notable leaders of Americaâ€™s past? As we continue down Arthur Schlesingerâ€™s list to the “near great” (Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson, etc.), todayâ€™s presidential competitors still need the benefit of a little wiggle room. Letâ€™s then drop down even further to the category of “high average.” Do any of our contemporary choices appear on a par with John Adams, James Monroe, Lyndon Johnson, or Kennedy?
If the answer is “no” or a tentative “maybe”, perhaps we should consider going to a different field to do our harvesting. At present, itâ€™s a foregone conclusion that a successful presidential candidate will almost certainly be a lawyer/politician. Hedley Donovan, editor of TIME magazine for 15 years, observed that the United States confers more than 400,000 advanced degrees each year to doctors, scientists, M.B.A.s, PHD.s, etc. Logic would indicate that these people are a formidable talent pool. Yet Woodrow Wilson has been the only Ph.D. so far to occupy the White House.
Donovan then asks, “Isnâ€™t there some way to get good people from â€˜outsideâ€™ politics into politics at a level where they might be considered for the presidency? The answer seems to be probably not.” The House, the Senate, the governnorâ€™s mansion, or a senior position in the military seem to be the primary springboards to the nationâ€™s highest office. A few non-office holders have surfaced in the past: astronauts Frank Borman and Neil Armstrong; Chryslerâ€™s Lee Iacocca, Yaleâ€™s Bartlett Giamatti, and, yes, even Walter Cronkite. These lists turned out to be just that, little more than a roll call of admired achievers who were briefly on the game board of Fantasy Politics.
There is one final category on Arthur Schlesingerâ€™s rating list of past presidents: Failures. Included are Richard Nixon, Grant, Harding, and Andrew Johnson. Will the next president of the U.S. use his/her powers wisely and assertively to avoid being placed on such a list? Will public support swing from disdain to confirmation during his/her term? Will the next president establish a rapport with fellow policymakers on both sides of the aisle? Is such a claimant to the presidency on any current list of candidates?
The future thus seems rather bleak. Our choices are seeminglyÂ not limited. In fact, the observation is offered that there are already too many choices. The problem is that the options will eventually boil down to the lesser of two evils. And as the saying goes, the lesser of two evils is…well, you know the rest.