They Carry Too Much Weight?
So, I was reading the memoir of Benjamin Perry at the Library of Congress today. Who? He was the first post-Civil War governor of South Carolina, appointed by President Andrew Johnson in the summer of 1865. According to Perry, Johnson explained that he picked Perry because he was from the part of South Carolina (the upcountry) with the most white people, and Johnson wanted to be sure there was a white man’s government in a state that was majority black.
That was pretty interesting, but one of Perry’s throwaway lines really brought me up short. He wrote that the most powerful and effective politicians of his lifetime — Webster, Calhoun, Clay — never became president because (and I paraphrase) “they carried too much weight.” Instead, the parties in the nineteenth century preferred to appoint mediocrities without much political baggage.
So the nation endured presidents with the slim talents of Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and William Henry Harrison. A couple of presidents during Perry’s lifetime were distinguished soldiers (Ulysses Grant, Zachary Taylor), but not so hot in the White House. And the two presidents who turned out to have real talent, James Polk and Abraham Lincoln, started their campaigns as dark horses who were little known around the nation.
Does Perry’s observation hold up today? Not so much. Our presidential candidates don’t come completely out of the blue any more, the way Polk and Lincoln and Pierce did. We make them sweat through a lengthy and unpleasant nominating process. That process probably prevents some talented people from every trying for president, but also screens the candidates for. . . . some basic political skills.
We still get candidates who have done little to distinguish themselves before running for president — Jimmy Carter (a one-term governor), George W. Bush (a governor with few powers) and Barack Obama (a one-term senator) come to mind. Sometimes the system produces people who are great candidates, like Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, but who may or may not (you pick) be great presidents.
What we mostly get, though, are people who decide they’re willing to run for president for so long that it becomes their job. No one ever called John McCain the smartest or most effective guy in the Senate. His military career involved tremendous personal strength and courage, but he did not rise to the top of that heap. But he’s spent a couple of years of his life trying to be elected president.
Hillary Clinton? She’s smart. But no one in Congress hails her as the second coming of Lyndon Johnson. Mitt Romney? A one-term governor who got out of Massachusetts before he could lose a re-election campaign. John Edwards? A one-term senator who left no footprints in Congess. Mike Huckabee? Oh, my. What do they all have in common? They are skilled and relentless campaigners (OK, I may be stretching with Romney, but the other three are).
I think the game has changed fundamentally from the one Benjamin Perry described, but there’s still a kernel in what he said. In the nineteenth century, the best candidate was one who had the least record. Now, the candidate’s record is not particularly important either, but the candidate must be known, must be a celebrity, must be willing to mortgage his or her life to becoming president.
I don’t think being an effective legislator or governor would automatically disqualify a potential candidate these days, but a politician with those credentials might be less likely to undertake the long, dehumanizing, and unrelentingly solipsistic effort required to get nominated and elected.