“Why do you want to be president?”
That was the unhappy question to which Senator Edward Kennedy was subjected in November 1979, during the early days of his primary challenge against President Jimmy Carter. Kennedy’s answer was unhappier still: It ran upwards of 350 words in length and was notable, above all, for not containing a bloody answer. His campaign slowly lost steam from then onward, and that was that.
This week, as we reflect on the anniversary of September 11, 2001, and prepare for another presidential election, I broaden the question to the following: In this day and age, why in holy heck would anyone want this crummy job?
One would hope that anyone who even considers seeking the presidency would think long, hard and with the utmost seriousness about that question, “Why?” We had a number of possible candidates in this cycle—Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels, to name three—who ultimately declined to run, possibly because their own answers came back wanting.
In 2008, the actor and human basset hound Fred Thompson induced more than a few guffaws by announcing his own candidacy with the less-than-fiery formulation, “I’ve never craved the job of president, but I want to do some things that only a president can do.” Not a terribly persuasive rationale, but the fact is, very few candidates have offered anything better.
Richard Nixon once narrowed the ambition for high office into two broad desires: First, to do big things; second, to be a big person. Plainly, these are not mutually exclusive aspirations, but the point is taken. We have little reason to doubt the elementary driving force behind nearly every candidacy—unstated by the candidate, of course—is one form or another of the classical strive for greatness and immortality. Even Abraham Lincoln—impossibly humble and dignified by today’s standards—remarked in his younger days, “I would just as soon die now, but I haven’t done anything to be remembered by.”
The most unfortunate irony about the modern-day presidency, it seems to me, is that the type of person who is most deserving of it—and would possibly do the finest job—is precisely the manner of man or woman who would be most repelled from seeking it in the first place, due first to the veritable media strip-search that occurs during the campaign, and second to the impossibly complex challenges of the gig itself.
An expression of that complexity, which so many candidates seem ill-prepared to confront, is the tendency for an utterly unanticipated crisis to spring up, with no advance warning, for which the president may well have no contingency plan to resolve.
Lest we forget, the greatest challenges many presidents have faced were not what those men thought they were signing up for when they began their campaigns. In 2007 and early 2008, Barack Obama’s candidacy was predicated on his opposition to—and vow to end—the Iraq War, and yet nearly his entire term has been dictated by economics. George W. Bush—his intelligence reports notwithstanding—seemed as blindsided by the September 11, 2001, attacks as any of us. His 2000 campaign promised a “humble” foreign policy—not quite the trajectory his tenure undertook.
This is what Michelle Obama meant at the Democratic National Convention when she said that being president “reveals who you are.” It also crystallizes the essential truth of Hillary Clinton’s famous “3 a.m. phone call” ad during the 2008 primaries. Sooner or later, the commander-in-chief is going to be made to sweat.
With that, we arrive at Mitt Romney. How might he answer the “Why” question, if asked? Some perfectly serious people have speculated that Romney’s ambition for the presidency begins and ends with winning the election in November, and that everything he does—and every position he assumes—is calibrated to that end. You might call him the anti-Fred Thompson, craving the job intensely, but undecided what he might do when he gets it.
In any case, Romney demonstrated this week that being a mere candidate for president can also function as theater for character revelation, as we dissect his rhetorical handling of the fine mess that has broken out in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Romney thought the 2012 election would be a simple referendum about the economy, and here, seemingly out of nothing, came storming back the primacy of foreign affairs, about which he will have to be prepared to deal, and in ways he will not be able to anticipate.
To be president is to be prepared to improvise, on the greatest possible scale and with the highest possible stakes. It is not an undertaking one assumes halfheartedly. We can only hope that those who seek it understand what they’re getting themselves into.