The other day I heard someone lament that the current field of presidential contenders includes no one who can be looked to for inspiration. My first response was to wonder why anyone would look to that group for inspiration in the first place?
Why indeed? I’m not sure where Americans got the crazy idea that presidents are supposed to be role models or personal leaders. If you look over the Constitution, the job is pretty mundane. A president was expected to execute laws related to a list of congressional powers described by James Madison as “few and defined.” A president was supposed to oversee a modest foreign policy befitting a constitutional republic, not an empire. And he was supposed to command the armed forces when fighting defensive wars. All in all, the president was the government’s chief executive, not the people’s leader.
Beginning with Lincoln, all this got distorted, to the point that presidents are now expected to be supermen or saviors. Their job includes policing the world, comforting us, ending poverty, abolishing hatred and prejudice, finding cures for diseases, making things affordable, creating jobs, and “growing the economy.”
Lately presidents are even supposed to motivate us to strive for something “greater than ourselves,” as John McCain put it when he was running for messiah, I mean president, in 2000.
I’m not surprised that presidential aspirants easily don the mantle of inspirational leader. What surprises me is that reasonable people buy it. Anyone who looks to a politician for inspiration has been neglecting some important parts of life.
Most politicians have spent their professional lives plotting to be in a position to spend other people’s money in order to tell them how to live. Officeholders are judged by how many intrusive laws they’ve pushed through the legislative process. They get into office by creating impressions that bear little if any resemblance to the truth. Take the “serious” Democratic presidential contenders, for example. Every one of them condemns “special interests” and claims to be one of the common people. Except each is closely tied to special interests and has nothing in common with common people. Sen. John Kerry has a knack for marrying into money, and is in bed with the teachers’ unions, among other special interests. Sen. John Edwards was a plaintiffs’ lawyer, which is as much a special interest as the energy industry. He’s fabulously wealthy, which sets him apart from most people in the country. Kerry and Edwards both have taken money from lobbyists, giving the lie to their claims of being uniquely virtuous in American politics. Much the same can be said of Howard Dean, whose tenure as governor of Vermont saw ample dealings with what he today damns as special interests. Can anyone real