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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

On failing to display a lifelong lean and hungry ambition to become the President

      I very much enjoyed, and commend to you, Joseph J. Ellis' 2004 biography, His Excellency: George Washington. I've read several other Washington biographies. But I particularly appreciated Ellis' analysis (at pp. 70-71) of the image of Washington as the reluctant hero — as when, for example, he protested to the Continental Congress that he was unequal to the job they would thrust upon him of leading America's fledgling, amateur, overmatched armed forces:

      One is tempted to read this kind of public modesty with a skeptical eye, as a ritualized statement of humility designed to demonstrate gentlemanly etiquette, rather than as a candid expression of what he truly felt.  After all, Washington had been talked about as the leading candidate for the job of military commander for several weeks, had done nothing to discourage such talk, and had been wearing his uniform [during the May 1775 sessions of Congress] as a rather conspicuous statement of his candidacy....

      What, then, is going on here? It helps to recognize that Washington engaged in the same pattern of postured reticence on two subsequent occasions: when he agreed to chair the Constitutional Convention; and when he accepted the office of the presidency. In all three instances he denied any interest in the appointment, demeaned his own qualifications, and insisted that only a unanimous vote left him no choice but to accept the call. The pattern suggests he had considerable trouble acknowledging his ambitions. His claim that he had no interest in the commander-in-chief post was not so much a lie as an essential fabrication that shielded him from the recognition that, within a Continental Congress filled with ambitious delegates, he was the most ambitious — not just the tallest — man in the room. He needed to convince himself that the summons came from outside rather than inside his own soul.

      I am not going to suggest a thoroughgoing comparison between George Washington and Fred Dalton Thompson — they have some things in common besides great height, but they obviously have a great many other differences from one another. But I do argue here that this particular trait of Washington's that Ellis' passage above (and others like it in his book) highlight so vividly is, in fact, an excellent trait for any would-be American president to have.


      Or perhaps it's actually just that the opposing trait is simply so ugly, inappropriate, and dangerous when it is extreme. One of the things that I most despised about John Kerry was (and is) that the man has been running for President since he was in pre-school. He picked a running mate who had not very much in common with him except that trait. And then he proceeded to campaign on the basis that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was his hereditary castle, and that only an idiot could fail to see how superbly suited he is to give the rest of us our marching orders.

      Others in the last half-century who've been similarly gripped by that same sort of life-long obsession with becoming POTUS — Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton — all saw their presidencies ruined by their own character flaws.

      "His Excellency George Washington," by contrast — the indispensable American, the man who could have been the American Caesar — was indeed ambitious, but he was redeemed by what Ellis calls "an essential fabrication that shielded" his own ambition even, and in fact especially, from himself. Were George Washington available today, however, to become the nominee of either party, he would be savaged by pundits like Richard Cohen, whose op-ed in today's WaPo positively insists that industrial-strength ambition is essential for the job!

[T]he presidency that Thompson now seeks is won not by the normal, the average, the ordinary, but by people fueled by an explosive combination of overriding ambition and charming megalomania. The world needs them, they are convinced. God wants them, they have been told. The country calls; they answer and march smartly into history. This is the stuff of parody (and I exaggerate a bit), but you don't get to be president by waiting for others to ask — unless you are the son of one. Let us not repeat that mistake....

[Thompson] indisputably lacks the passion, the concern, the fire-in-the-bellydom that Reagan had — not just for winning but about issues themselves. Thompson never showed [as a senator] that he was out to change matters, to right some major wrong, to fix the god-awful mess the country is in. I contrast him with a senator I recently chatted with who took virtually childlike delight in being a senator — being able, as he said, to be a player. He savored his power — as one of only 100. What a difference he could make!

I hate to tell you this, Mr. Cohen, but whoever the childlike senator was that you spoke with is deluding himself, and you're deluded too, if either of you think that being a senator gives one a reasonable shot at changing matters, righting the major wrongs, and fixing the god-awful mess the country is in. Recall, sir, that Ronald Reagan left the California governor's mansion in 1975, and did not thereafter seek to run for the U.S. Senate. Being a "big dog" there just ... isn't really that big a deal. Just ask former President Teddy Kennedy, for example.

      Perhaps, Mr. Cohen, we should let the race tell us who has the necessary desire, stamina, and other qualities required to win the race. That makes more sense to me than disqualifying candidates at the starting blocks because they didn't leave you with any memorable sound-bites when you waited around for a delayed flight with them in National Airport some years ago. I wonder, Mr. Cohen, if you said anything that Sen. Thompson found memorable that evening either? No? Well, then, I guess your "fire in the bellydom" (heh! ... how'd you get that past the WaPo editors?) to be a really well-connected op-ed writer must be pretty cold, bud.

      Mr. Cohen, you would, I presume, be equally savage in deriding the candidacy of Dwight Eisenhower, who also  failed to become a hard-driving difference-making U.S. Senator before running for President, and who was thought by most of his countrymen to be fairly indifferent to politics — until not long before he was nominated, and then elected in an enormous popular and electoral vote landslide.

      There has not been such an absence of an early-dominating GOP presidential candidate — neither incumbent seeking re-election, nor a vice president seeking elevation, nor an early favorite who has dominated fund-raising and early straw polls — since as far back as 1968, or maybe even 1964. But if there is one prediction I can make with great confidence about the primary campaign for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, it is that nobody will find it a cakewalk; and certainly the general election will be as hard-fought an affair, from an underdog's standing and against major odds, as has likely ever been the case in American politics.


      Of Washington's decision to accept the commander-in-chief role, Ellis went on to write (at pp. 71-73):

While everyone around him was caught up in  patriotic declarations about the moral supremacy of the American cause, Washington remained immune to the inflated rhetoric, keenly aware that a fervent belief in the worthiness of a crusade was no guarantee of its ultimate triumph.

      And he was right. For the larger truth was that no one was qualified to lead an American army to victory, because the odds against such an outcome appeared overwhelming....

      If the decision to marry Martha Custis most shaped his own life, the decision to take command of the Continental army most shaped his place in history....

      Although there was no way he could have known it at the time, Washington was assuming command of the army in the longest declared war in American history....

But he persevered. By the end of that war, George Washington had become, and he has forever since remained, "first in the hearts of his countrymen." Shielded or not, there was indeed ambition enough inside him, to the extent that is a required part of the mix, to see George Washington through the Revolutionary War.

      Times have changed, and our struggles now are in many ways different. But whether it's Fred Thompson or some other Republican who wins the 2008 presidential election, that can only be done by someone who — by post-hoc definition — in fact turns out to have had "enough" ambition to persevere and to succeed. And that has been continuously true since the first President was elected, even though his own election was by acclamation: For he could have said, "No, I will not serve," and yet been assured of an immortal place in our pantheon of national heroes.

      So count me, contra Mr. Cohen, extremely unconcerned if Fred Thompson has been coy. Count me unworried whether he has enough "fire in his belly" — for if he doesn't, he likely won't get the nomination, and he certainly won't win the general election. Count me relieved and profoundly grateful that John Kerry is still the junior senator from Massachusetts, and that no one among the GOP field shares his sort of prideful, disdainful, consuming, ugly ambition. And count me pleased and amused that, indeed, it looks as though we'll have a genuine horse-race within the Republican Party this campaign cycle.

Posted by Beldar at 06:02 AM in 2008 Election, Books, Politics (2007) | Permalink


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(1) Jinnmabe made the following comment | Jun 5, 2007 8:53:07 AM | Permalink

The post-hoc definition is the ONLY definition that matters. If Fred becomes president then, yeah, I guess he had enough ambition. If he doesn't, who gives a flying fig whether he has "fire in the bellydom" or not? It'll just give him years of indigestion (*cough* Al Gore *cough*). This piece reminds me of when they interview athletes after a big win and the guy says "We did what we had to do to win." Uh, you think?

(2) BadIdeaGuy made the following comment | Jun 6, 2007 10:26:17 AM | Permalink

Great post. This:

"The presidency is where a person can make the most difference. But the emergence of Thompson shows that a fatigued Republican Party is not interested in making any difference at all -- just in hanging on. What commends Thompson to the presidency -- the only thing anyone ever mentions -- is his TV fame. If that's all it takes, Thompson can look forward to being more than a president. He'll be an American Idol."

...is single stupidest paragraph ever written. All of his blog supporters have pointed first to his views first, and his charisma second.

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