Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
1. provide somebody with means : to provide somebody with the resources, authority, or opportunity to do something.
It is hard to tell which moment from the recent South Carolina primary was more dishonest. The conventional wisdom is pointing to Bill Clinton’s dastardly, underhanded, too-clever-by-half, playing of the race card to type Barack Obama as “the black candidate” rather than the surprising and refreshing alternative candidate to his wife’s overhyped, no longer-so-inevitable candidacy. The ultimate expression of Clinton’s calumny came on Saturday when the former President ever-so-innocently, and oh so graciously said: "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here."
Nevertheless, I believe that an even more dishonest moment was the sustained shock, shock, among both the Democratic rank-and-file and the punditocracy that Bill Clinton was involved in such dastardly, underhanded, too-clever-by-half tricks. Let’s face it. The Democratic party enabled – and in fact applauded – these tactics throughout the 1990s, as long as he usually pulled them on Republicans. Anyone who has watched the Clintons in action, and especially Bill Clinton when he is in full throttle, has to recognize the patent: comments that are as brilliant as they are pathological; comments that appear to be gracious and are in fact nasty; comments that simultaneously zero in on an opponent’s weakness and yet offer up a heavy dose of truth, rooted in a cynical but accurate taking of the political temperature.
What is most disturbing about Bill Clinton’s Jesse Jackson analogy is that it just might be true. As someone who saved his presidency by playing to the American people’s baser instincts, Bill Clinton has an uncanny nose for the American gutter. Just as it was premature for the Obamaniacs to pop the champagne and expect a cakewalk after Iowa, it is premature to expect a waltz to the nomination after South Carolina. It is indeed very possible that despite all the idiocy claiming Bill Clinton was “the first black president,” the demographics of South Carolina, and the identity politics of the Democratic Party were the key factors in Obama’s victory, as hundreds of thousands of African-Americans streamed to the polls inspired by the first serious black contender for a major party nomination.
Exit polls show that Obama won 78 percent of the black vote, while Hillary Clinton and John Edwards split 75 percent of the white vote.
I write these words with a heavy heart because I want Obama’s poetry to be true and for Bill Clinton’s reading of the electorate to be wrong. I love the politics of possibility and of non-partisanship that Obama is evoking so effectively as opposed to the politics of cunning and calculation that Clinton is playing. Still it is unfortunate but true that you could argue pretty convincingly that Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire by mobilizing the women anxious to see the first woman president, and that Barack Obama won South Carolina by mobilizing the African-Americans anxious to see the first real black president, not some poseur taking a punchline far too seriously. (The origins of this “first black President” line came from a rant of the Nobel-prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison in the October 5, 1998 issue of The New Yorker. I remember thinking it may have been the single dumbest line I read during that festival of idiocy known as the Clinton impeachment; nearly ten years later, we see that the line was dumb and destructive because too many Clintonites took her stereotype-laden riff far too seriously).
Now, of course, the big question for the Clintons is what next? What does Hillary Clinton do in the week-and-a-half remaining that can make her the super-duper winner on Super-Duper Tuesday? For starters, as I argue in a Newsday op-ed this morning, Hillary Clinton has to remember that American voters already rejected the idea of two Clintons for the price of one, back during the 1992 election. She has to go back to doing what she did so effectively during two Senatorial campaigns and in her first term as New York’s Senator. She needs to keep Bill Clinton involved but not overly engaged, so that she can shine in the spotlight, so that she can be the one dominating the room. The 2008 Democratic presidential campaign cannot be a 1990s Clinton nostalgia tour. Hillary Clinton has to win – or lose – this campaign much more on her own than as the wife-of America’s fascinating but flawed ex-President.
So far, it seems that the most popular politician in the 2008 presidential campaign is the late Ronald Reagan, who last ran for office 24 years ago. The Republican candidates invoke “President Reagan” far more frequently and adoringly than they mention the current incumbent, and even the Democratic Senator Barack Obama has gotten into the act. Obama recently elbowed Hillary Clinton by mocking Bill Clinton’s presidential legacy. Showing that he uses the same charming grin and upbeat cadence to deliver good news and hard body blows, the Democrats’ wonder boy observed that Ronald Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” It seems that conservative Republicans have forgotten how often he frustrated them, and Democrats have forgotten how much they despised him.
In 1989, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan waved goodbye to the American people, few would have predicted this Reagan revival. In truth, Reagan’s poll ratings throughout the 1980s fluctuated far more than even most Americans realized at the time. And by the end of Reagan’s two terms, even though many had great affection for him, many were also fed up with Reagan’s inattention to detail, his squabbling official and real families, and the various disasters on his watch, most notably the Iran-contra scandal, the huge budget deficits, the 1987 stock market crash, and the growing epidemic of materialism and selfishness in America. Similarly, conservatives were torn between worshiping Reagan the man and grumbling about his record which was more moderate than they had hoped, having failed to end the era of big government.
Ronald Reagan’s legacy has been resurrected thanks, mostly, to his three successors: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Initially, George H.W. Bush, earned press and public acclaim by distancing himself from Reagan. Bush appeared as the real Reagan, the guy who actually was a war hero, attended church, and raised a model family, rather than simply talking about it. President Bush emphasized his longer hours and his hands-on management, triggering respectful portraits of him as a functional chief executive. As the new president’s stock climbed, the old president’s lagged.
Eventually, however, President Bush stumbled in areas where President Reagan excelled. As the people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet republics demanded their freedom, Bush behaved cautiously, fearing that if he gloated too much he would trigger a Soviet crackdown. As a result, even though the Communist grip on Eastern Europe loosened under Bush’s watch, President Reagan earned more historical credit, for having launched the process, and shaping it with dramatic moments. Bush could not match Reagan’s June, 1987 call at the Berlin Wall to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” More broadly, Bush’s awkwardness with what he mocked as “the vision thing” made Americans pine for Reagan’s poetry. And when Bush broke his famous “read my lips, no new taxes” promise, he infuriated conservatives and undermined his standing as a man of integrity.
Bill Clinton’s presidency further boosted Reagan’s reputation. With Clinton, a Democrat, becoming the prince of peace and prosperity, finding a “Third Way,” celebrating that the “era of big government is over,” it was harder for Democrats to criticize Reagan for selfishness, materialism, or budget-cutting. Moreover, the Clinton-era boom made the Reagan-era deficits appear insignificant relative to the size of America’s economy, making Reagan’s economic decisions seem visionary. Finally, the contrast between Ronald Reagan’s old-fashioned respect for the White House – reputedly, he never removed his suit jacket when he was in the Oval Office – and Bill Clinton’s anything-goes adolescent behavior, even in the president’s inner sanctum, made Americans nostalgic for Reagan’s presence, and values.
The final step in the Reagan revival has occurred thanks to George W. Bush. Many Democrats despise this President Bush so deeply they often try to prove their enmity is not partisan by claiming they didn’t hate Reagan that intensely. Many forget the constant predictions that Reagan would outlaw abortion, restore racism, stop the feminist revolution, impoverish America, and lead the world into nuclear holocaust. Moreover, as Reagan aged so tragically, as his wife Nancy handled his Alzheimer’s disease so gracefully, the angers of the 1980s faded. By the time Reagan died in 2004, and thanks to a carefully choreographed funeral in Washington and California, conservatives remembered him as their modern-day George Washington, who launched their revolution; liberals grudgingly acknowledged, as Barack Obama did, that, as the man who was in the right place at the right time, he won the Cold War, restored America’s confidence, and became a transformational leader, unlike his immediate predecessors and successors.
While George W. Bush should not bank on watching his historical legacy rebound as quickly or as magically, the Reagan resurrection does teach essential lessons as we watch the presidential campaign. America is such a multi-dimensional country. The presidency is such an impossible job. History is such a fluid arbiter. As a result, the choices that voters make, while incredibly important and often epoch-making, are also difficult judgment calls which take years to evaluate properly or authoritatively. In fact, we historians make whatever business we do off of the continuing conversation about who accomplished what to make this nation great – or make it stumble.
So far, the Democratic contest is feeling very twentieth century and the Republican contest is feeling very nineteenth century. As the Democratic contest becomes a battle of two titans, it is becoming a nationwide fight between two political stars with national constituencies. This was characteristic of some of the great nomination battles of the last half-century, be it Richard Nixon versus Nelson Rockefeller in 1960 or Walter Mondale versus Gary Hart in 1988. But the more wide-open Republican contest evokes comparisons with the fragmented nomination contests of yesteryear – only in those days the constituencies were often state or at best regional and today they are less geographically-based.
While much of the focus recently has been on race and gender in the Hillary versus Obama contest, the simple fact that the two have that iconic, Cher-like, famous-enough-to-be-known-by-one-name status, suggests that we are also talking about the politics of celebrity. Let’s face it. Despite Hillary Clinton’s claim to be the candidate of “experience” both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have pretty thin resumes. Obama is famous for being a newcomer. Neither has any real executive experience. Hillary Clinton is pretending that in the 1990s she was the co-president she hoped to be rather than the frustrated first lady that she was.
Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have resumes more similar to George W. Bush than to his far more experienced father, former Ambassador to China, former CIA director, former Republican National Committee Chairman, and former Vice President George H.W. Bush. Hillary Clinton became senator from a state in which she had never lived, because in the modern world, celebrity is transferable. In 2000, she showed she could apply her considerable name recognition and iconic status from the 1990s and parlay it into a New York Senate seat. Barack Obama had a more conventional march to the U.S. Senate from the State Senate, but without his rock-star-like rocketing to great fame as a result of his 2004 convention speech and his brilliant book marketing, he would be yet another workaday senator, accumulating seniority before making his big presidential play. Of course, the embarrassingly futile, failed candidacies of Senator Joe Biden and Senator Chris Dodd show just how much the modern American voter (and reporter) values Senatorial seniority – along with the resulting experience and wisdom.
So far, the three Republican victors most resemble the various regional warlords who would show up to quadrennial party conventions in the 1800s, hoping either to be the critical kingmaker or, better yet, actually be crowned the party’s temporary king. With Mike Huckabee having won the Iowa caucus, John McCain having won New Hampshire, and Mitt Romney having won Michigan, we are even hearing some analysts speculate that this year’s convention may actually be relevant for the nomination of the party’s standard bearer, rather than simply celebrating a democratic coronation. Each of the three winners represent a different dimension of the legendary, multi-dimensional Reagan coalition that has dominated the GOP – and shaped American politics – for more than a quarter century. Huckabee represents the evangelicals, McCain represents the national security types and possibly the neocons, and Romney represents the business and technocratic types. Or, to think about it in a slightly different way, if the three were auditioning for parts in a play about Ronald Reagan’s famous first-term advising triumvirate, Huckabee would play the true believer, Ed Meese; McCain would play the savvy PR guy Michael Deaver, and Romney would play the emissary to the corporate and Wall Street types, James A. Baker III. Analysts looking at the Republican side are also wondering if this wideopen field will make room for Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani as well.
Regardless of how it plays out, it seems clear that the George W. Bush years have strained the Reagan coalition. The challenge for the next nominee is either to revive that broad-based coalition or transform it, finding a new political formula that works. The Democrats have the easier and yet harder time. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are mainstream Democrats. Neither nomination would threaten Democratic business as usual. Then again, as a party that has only fielded two winning candidates since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 – Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – maybe it is time for a more dramatic change on that side of the aisle too.
Not surprisingly, as the Democratic race heats up, it is getting ugly, and silly. Senator Hillary Clinton is on the defensive, accused of disrespecting Martin Luther King, Jr., on the eve of King’s birthday celebrations, and just before the heavily African-American South Carolina primary. One of Senator Barack Obama’s supporters, the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, with no explanation or accompanying quotation, accused Mrs. Clinton of “taking cheap shots at, of all people, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Senator John Edwards chimed in too, equally histrionically. No matter who we support, historians should be appalled – and should object strongly – to this distorted and demagogic charge.
On Fox News the other day, Senator Clinton said: “Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done.” Obama’s people pounced, accusing Hillary of discounting King’s centrality to Civil Rights. Obama himself has denied his campaign fed the attacks against what he made sure to call “unfortunate” and “ill-advised” remarks. Edwards also joined the pile-on, telling more than 200 people at a predominantly black Baptist church: ''I must say I was troubled recently to see a suggestion that real change that came not through the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King but through a Washington politician…. Those who believe that real change starts with Washington politicians have been in Washington too long and are living a fairy tale.”
Predictably, as her surrogates attack Edwards and Obama for demagoguery, Senator Clinton is back-pedaling furiously. Alas, by the time Clinton finishes her damage control effort, she will probably join Obama and Edwards in distorting the truth.
In fact, Hillary Clinton gave a pithy, accurate summary of an incredibly complicated period of time. She started with Dr. King as the visionary. She acknowledged Dwight Eisenhower's disinterest and John Kennedy’s limited impact in implementing that vision. And she credited Lyndon Johnson with his great skill in translating Civil Rights leaders’ grand aspirations into lasting – and significant – Civil Rights legislation.
Moreover, it was perfectly appropriate for a presidential candidate to draw the lesson “it took a president to get it done.” One of the president’s central tasks, especially when spurred by passionate reformers like King, is to convert the high wattage energy of the moral crusader into a more standard and less combustible current for widespread domestic consumption. Edwards’ assumption that this process puts the dreaded “Washington politician” at the start of the process rather than the end of the process, is a willful distortion. Obama’s claim that this description somehow “diminished King’s role” is an ignorant misrepresentation.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the twentieth century’s most influential Americans. Putting his accomplishments in context, suggesting he could not have done it alone, does not diminish him in any way. In fact, by placing him in the proper context, by treating his achievements accurately and proportionately, we give him the respect he – and the millions who fought for justice with him – deserve.
P.S. Whatever high mark she earned with her MLK-LBJ summary, Hillary earns a"C" in history for her remark on Sunday when speaking to black parishioners at a Presbyterian church in Columbia, S.C. She said: “Many of you in this sanctuary were born before African-Americans could vote." Unless she was speaking to the oldest congregation in history, of people born in 1849 or earlier, she needed more subtlety in that formulation. The fifteenth amendment, ratified in 1870, gave African-Americans the vote -- although it took the Voting Rights Act (thanks to LBJ again) and the Civil Rights movement (thanks to MLK and others) for this right to be enjoyed fully with minimal harassment.
HNN Hot Topics: Election 2008: Primaries
Of course, rather than apologizing for their inaccurate predictions, reporters reward candidates for exceeding the false journalistic expectations. Thus Senators McCain and Clinton became “comeback” kids on Tuesday, having bounced back from reporters’ premature eulogizing – and pollsters’ seemingly authoritative predicting.
Thanks to the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic race is shaping up as a clash of the titans, led by but still not yet limited to Senators Obama and Clinton. Even though she lost in Iowa, Hillary Clinton remains the beneficiary of one of the greatest modern political machines. Clintonites not only know how to win – they know how to lose, nimbly turning setbacks into opportunities for comebacks. And even though he lost in New Hampshire, Barack Obama remains a dazzling political talent, a silver-tongued, honey-smooth, hope-generating political thoroughbred. Both his Iowa victory speech and his New Hampshire concession were rhetorical gems, while Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire victory speech had a lumpy, clunky quality that suggests that she has not yet learned from her husband or her chief rival how to sweet-talk the American people.
For all the obvious political talent displayed on the Democratic side, the foreign policy experience of Senators Clinton, Obama and Edwards is perilously thin. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton went on foreign trips but she rarely made policy. Claiming she has considerable foreign experience is like a bleacher bum presuming he can master center field – watching, even from up close, is not the same thing as playing. Barack Obama’s foreign policy experience – having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia – is even less impressive, akin to presuming that just because you love ice cream you know the recipe for making it taste so good.
It is disturbing how irrelevant a healthy recognition of the Islamist threat appears to be for Democrats. John Edwards, for one, went so far as to dismiss the “war on terror” as merely a slogan. Only a few short years ago, that kind of thinking would have been derided as so “September 10,” meaning buried in yesterday’s delusions. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, for all the Republican candidates’ flaws, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have at least pitched their campaigns on national security credentials and concerns.
Inevitably, the next few weeks will bring on even more idle speculation, journalistic oversimplification, and candidate confrontations. But amid all the cheesy spectacle of the American nominating campaign, the people’s input makes the whole carnival profound. Thanks to the ornery, swim-against-the-tide, expectation-defying citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire, these campaigns have become very real. With luck, the process will not only be empowering democratically but will result in a quality leader capable of meeting America’s challenges. There are no guarantees, but as Obama has shown, hopes themselves can be not just inspiring, but transforming.
The people have spoken: “Obama and Huckabee Triumph,” the headlines are blaring. Well, to be accurate, a small unrepresentative sample of the people spoke. The Iowa caucus is more like the snap of a starter’s pistol than the roar of a rocket launcher. Nevertheless, Democratic Senator Barack Obama and former Republican governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, will enjoy a boost in momentum and fund-raising, especially because reporters choose to magnify minor Iowa victories into major national statements.
Even if they win no other contests, the emergence of Obama and Huckabee shows how wide-open both party fields are. Not since 1920 have Americans experienced a campaign with neither the president nor vice-president running in any way or any time (Harry Truman initially hoped to run in 1952, Dawes was a presidential hopeful in 1928). None of the candidates worked for George W. Bush, further proving the Administration’s unpopularity -- and the difficulty these days of launching a campaign for executive leadership from the executive branch (except the White House). Moreover, before his stirring debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, few Americans had heard of Barack Obama. Even though Mike Huckabee governed Arkansas from 1996 to 2007, he was nationally unknown until months ago, when his wisecracks started attracting attention in the televised candidate forums.
Obama’s rise, even if it proves fleeting, shows America making progress toward burying racism. Americans seem more worried that Obama is too green – inexperienced – than too black. Obama’s emergence is also the story of celebrity politics, especially because the talk show goddess Oprah Winfrey embraced Obama so enthusiastically. Obama wants to represent a national yearning for healing, appealing as a constructive centrist promising to end the Clinton-Bush baby-boom generational squabbling.
Huckabee’s rise is tied to another modern American political story, the rise of the religious right. Huckabee played to Iowa’s evangelicals, calling himself a “proven Christian leader” in some television ads. This crass appeal violated some of the delicate unspoken rules in the admittedly gray area where religion and politics overlap. Huckabee’s implicit, even more disturbing, appeal contrasts him as a true Christian, and thus a true American, with his runner-up in Iowa, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, whose candidacy has stirred some bigoted anti-Mormonism.
On the losing side, Romney and Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton may have suffered the biggest blows among the serious contenders. But both hope to rebound in New Hampshire next Tuesday. Both also now have a chance to show how they bounce back from setbacks with grit and grace. Reporters love comeback stories, as much as they love Cinderella stories, and reporters often knock down candidates to set up those comebacks
Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among others, have gone from relative obscurity to the presidency in a flash. But victory in Iowa does not guarantee the nomination. In 1980 George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan in the caucuses but still lost the nomination. Iowa triumphs can launch a candidacy to the party nomination but do not guarantee general election victory, as John Kerrey learned in 2004.
So, yes, some of the people have spoken. But there is a lot more jawboning and stumping, speculating and voting, that must occur before the Democrats and Republicans nominate their respective nominees and the American people pick their next leader – 11 months from now in November 2008. All we can predict is more – more speculating, more campaigning, and, thankfully, more voting from other parts of the country.
Party hacks should remember this lesson as they deprive party members in Michigan, Florida and other states of their democratic rights to select the presidential nominees. On Saturday, the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee punished Michigan Democrats for holding their party primaries on January 29 by stripping Michigan of all its 128 delegates and 28 superdelegates. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have imposed similar penalties on Florida for planning a January 14 primary.
These strong-arm, dictatorial tactics are mostly intended to protect the early voting and caucusing prerogatives of New Hampshire and Iowa. For more than two decades, the non-representative voters of these two states have had a disproportional impact on choosing the nominee. It’s become a big business in those states. Their state leaders squeal like pigs at the Iowa fair – and shriek like a rookie skier mistakenly whizzing down a double diamond in New Hampshire’s White Mountains – any time another state hones in on their turf. But the truth is that the voters of major states like Michigan, Florida, and California have long been rendered irrelevant in the nominating process by arbitrary scheduling quirks.
To see just how absurd this whole thing is – the origins of the early Iowa caucus have to do with a broken down mimeograph machine (kids, ask mom and dad – or maybe gramps and gramma what these things are). Back in 1972, when pc neither meant “personal computer” nor “Politically Correct,” a broken-down offset printing press forced Iowa Democrats to hold their precinct caucuses in January. The early date would give them enough time to duplicate and distribute the results during the various rounds of voting the caucus required. This arrangement made their vote the first in the nation.
Four years later, Iowans promoted their early caucuses to candidates and journalists. “I knew each wanted to be where the other was,” the Democratic state chairman, Tom Whitney, would recall, identifying the symbiotic relationship between candidates and the media.
One candidate who took advantage was Jimmy Carter. Carter worked Iowa intensely – and his slate of delegates received more than twice the votes of any other candidate’s. Moreover, Carter did “Better Than Expected.” Even though this procedure was merely the first step of many in choosing 47 of 3,008 delegates for the 1976 Democratic convention, reporters were looking for a winner – and found Jimmy Carter. [For formal sourcing of this story, check out Gil Troy, See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate, revised ed., (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 234]
A logical system would push off Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, Michigan and the rest of them for a few more months. But if New Hampshire and Iowa have the right to start in January, other, more, larger, and more representative states should be allowed to as well – and citizens in those states should not be penalized for wanting to have some input in this important and complicated choice, especially this year.
When an Iowa voter recently asked him about the intensity of his motivation for running, former Republican Fred Thompson admitted “I’m not particularly interested in running for president.” This statement confirmed the media spin on Thompson as too lazy and too disengaged. But Thompson’s admission may be the sanest statement a candidate has made on the campaign trail in years.
Years ago the venerable Washington Post columnist David Broder coined “Broder’s Law,” suggesting that all those willing to endure the indignities of the campaign thereby revealed they were “too loony to be trusted with the office.” Alas, too many of Broder’s journalistic colleagues take the opposite tack, assuming that running for president like crazy is a minimum requirement for being president. As a result, in the last few presidential cycles, marginal candidates like Ron Paul and Al Sharpton have enjoyed serious media exposure – exploiting reporters’ love of an offbeat story and the absurd party policies giving long-shot candidates equal billing in the joint candidate press conferences frequently mislabeled “debates.”
Perhaps these reporters are suffering from the same sleep-deprivation and fast-food highs they impose on the candidates. It is a funny thing. On one hand, the relentless media exposure and scrutiny do prepare a candidate for life as president. On the other hand, the campaign trail’s 24/7 chaotic, dyspeptic, but intensely democratic Holiday Inn-hop – especially in the demanding, one-on-one states like Iowa and New Hampshire – represents a dramatic contrast to the coddled monarchical splendor of White House life. The modern American president lives in a palatial cocoon cut off from the realities of everyday life. The campaign trail has its own illusory reality – but cushy, it ain’t.
On a deeper level, reporters frequently confuse ambition with ability. A longstanding, deep-burning desire for office should not be a qualification for the presidency. In George Washington’s day, excessive ambition was one of the qualities Americans most feared in a politician. While we need not return to the eighteenth century’s elaborate posturing, a little perspective on life and on politics can go a long way in grounding a leader. This lack of perspective is one of the distinguishing characteristics of both Hillary and Bill Clinton – and feeds many Americans’ deep suspicions of them. In 2000, one source of George W. Bush’s appeal was his relaxed approach to the presidential quest; Al Gore appeared far too keen, far too invested and thus far too desperate. (Of course, observers of the Bush presidency can make the case that a little more zeal and perseverance would make for a more effective administrator).
Fred Thompson needs to fine-tune his message, so that his insouciance does not appear to be lazy, sloppy, or contemptuous. His role model, Ronald Reagan, aptly conveyed that sense to the American people, showing just enough perspective to carve out time for napping, without appearing dismissive of the president’s serious responsibilities. Of course, Reagan’s casual detachment drove reporters to distraction.
Then again, maybe it was jealousy. When Reagan napped, reporters stewed, waiting for a story to file before deadline. When Reagan vacationed, reporters followed, having to hustle twice as hard for a story half as interesting. Thompson’s great offense may be suggesting he will be less worried about feeding the insatiable media maw and more concerned with doing his job while preserving some measures of privacy and sanity.