by Craig Shirley
Jul. 20, 2012
In the 200-plus year history of that unique institution we call the presidency, only once did the American people chose an executive who everybody – or most anyway – hought would be great at the job before he actually took office.
Other than their supporters and family members, few thought Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR or Ronald Reagan would be great presidents before they were president.
Yet there was a commonality to all of these men; all express great thoughts before he became president. All understood power and its uses and all understood the American people.
There was never any indication that President Obama thought expansively about anything other than himself or that Mitt Romney thought much about the future or country he is now seeking to lead. Romney has no paper trail of speeches, letters, commentaries or books to indicate such and Obama’s paper trail is two autobiographies.
All the handwringing about this not being a great election is just that; handwringing. Great men make great times as Thomas Carlyle postulated and great times summon forth great men.
We do not live in great times. Our issues are small, our politicians are small, the consultants are small and while the office of the presidency in many ways more powerful than any time in our history, the Bully Pulpit has also been reduced to a one-dimensional caricature of itself. We know Bill Clinton’s preferred underwear and sexual habits. We know Obama’s exercise regime.
We know Mitt Romney’s history with dogs and station wagons.
POLITICO’s Maggie Haberman and Alex Burns nailed this wretched campaign in a provocative piece several weeks ago when they scored both politicians for racing to the bottom rather than appealing to our highest aspirations.
There was a time when people would stop and listen to their president when he spoke the to nation. Images are still fresh of JFK and Reagan appearing on television screens in airports and train stations and citizens pausing to hear what their leader said.
That time is past. Blame it on technology, blame it in the permanent dystopia of Washington, blame it on the consultants, blame it on the endemic corruption of politics and corporate America. Blame it on public education, the demise of spirituality as part of the national soul, but the pining for 1980 or 1932 will not summon forth greatness anytime soon.
Politics has devolved into a petty series of little corruptions; a pander here, a payoff there. Cynicism is rampant and history’s dialectic may have been upended. According to that storyline, every generation or two, a presidential election takes place in which the future of the Republic is sent off on a wildly different direction. From 1800 to 1828 to 1860 to 1904 to 1932 to 1980, in each election a great man issued forth great times.
This election should fall within that framework but rather than appealing to the better angels of our nature or telling a generation that much is expected of them or speaking of a community of shared values, we get embarrassing squabbling over tax returns and lifted quotes, puerile sound bites and other less-than-inspiriting performances.
The wisdom as always is with the American people and this is the silver lining we can take away from 2012. We’ve had troughs of little men in our high offices before. Who can forget Millard Fillmore or James Buchanan or Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter?
The cynicism is nonetheless in Washington and in politics, brought about by small men and women being aided by small men and women to achieve small things because they think small thoughts.