Decline of the Presidency

Author: Gary Hart

For many years it was common, at least for boys then, to hear that “in America, anyone can become President.”  We now know that to be absolutely true.

For those of us who take such matters seriously, however, there was some preparation required.  A serious candidate for President had to know something about how the national economy worked and the basic principles of public finance, diplomacy and foreign policy, and national defense, the three Constitutional duties of a President.

In modern times, from Franklin Roosevelt through Richard Nixon Presidents met those standards to greater or lesser degrees.  Private morality was assumed.  But when that assumption failed with Nixon, we then elected a moral President, Jimmy Carter, but even he had traveled the world a bit, served in the Navy, and had been Governor.

But then the standards began to slip.  Though they had been Governors, Reagan and George W. Bush had little familiarity with the world, intellectual curiosity, or sense of history.  Presidents Clinton and Obama qualified intellectually and enjoyed the company of those who had experience and lessons to provide.  But neither had traveled widely and met foreign leaders or had taken the time to study and think about defense and national security issues.

If a presidential candidate seems bright enough and curious enough, voters are willing to hope they can learn on the job what they need to know to govern, and in the case of those who don’t seem interested in books and learning the assumption is that they will surround themselves with smart people.  The fallacy of this assumption is that some smart people also have their own biases and ideological fish to fry.

As we drifted away from the standards set out above and were lowering the bar for pre-qualification for the highest office, it was virtually inevitable that one set of circumstances or another would lead us to elect an almost totally unqualified President.  And so we have.

The incumbent President demonstrates almost no intellectual curiosity, disdains briefings of any kind, boasts that he is smarter on virtually any topic than qualified experts, and with only one or two exceptions surrounds himself with those who know little about their assigned duties or whose sole aim is to abolish the governmental structures established to carry out established statutory mandates in their assigned departments of responsibility.

If we are willing to accept these absolutely minimal standards, then indeed anyone can be President.  Just don’t expect much in the way of wisdom, a sense of history and its lessons, experience in diplomacy (and the inevitable gaffes and embarrassments that lack will produce), calculation in the use of military force, balancing of public revenues with expenditures, or even an understanding of the legislative process.

Many of us in office and beyond have heard repeated pleas from business people: “Why can’t we run the government like a business?”, to which the obvious response is, “Because it isn’t a business.”  Even so, what business would select a CEO who had little or no experience in that business and didn’t seem to mind or want to learn?

The brightest hope, presuming we survive our present experience with a totally unqualified President, is that our society will once again revert to more traditional standards of qualification for the highest office—basic knowledge of the economy, experience in diplomacy, and some knowledge of military history.

Admittedly, this narrows the field of presidential candidates substantially.  But so does any list of job qualifications.  Why should any leadership position in the private sector come with a list of qualifications and the highest public office in the land have none?

My lifelong study of American history suggests that this nation is strong enough to survive our current soap opera psychodrama and emerge relatively stable on the other side.  But even the worst experiences in life hold lessons to be learned, and this current national experience should teach us to take the Presidency more seriously and insist on a much higher standard of leadership

5 Responses to “Decline of the Presidency”

  1. Tim Conner Says:

    Whenever I feel overwhelmed by events and the drama, I read one of your essays and feel much better about surviving.
    Thank you.

  2. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    I still firmly believe that America and its promise can and will survive the Trump era, regardless of how long that period may be.

    And, the reason for my confidence is the presence of so many American leaders in the political world and in public service, in economics and the arts for whom integrity and the pursuit of a better world have actual meaning.

    For every Donald Trump, for example, there are many Jim Comey’s and Bob Mueller’s and Sally Yates’s … and many still Jerry Brown’s, Joe Biden’s and Gary Hart’s.

    As long as those who reside at the other end of any spectrum opposite Trump speak up and speak forcefully and persuasively there remains a great deal of hope for the future.

  3. LORENZO CHERIN Says:

    I think this reflects what most would agree on, that no role is right for everyone , to put it , more than mildly !

    The operative word is role. Reagan the actor did not play the role of governor or president, he genuinely was a very political man, whose views both stayed the same on core issues , through his trajectory, and shifted, on others , yes, to the right. He had been a union leader before middle age, a president after a long career and activism. I do not care for his politics, but rate him far higher for calibre than some compared to what we see now he was a genius ! He was, according to most people, also a man everybody could work with, had a terrific sense of humour and good manners.

    What we see now is an aberration, it shall not carry on thus, a better man, or , please , soon, woman, shall emerge.

    The country , your s, did not really choose the man in the White House, he got there by a fluke, the electoral college, the e mails, Comey, its all part of a mess, that soon shall be corrected.

    Find your man or woman.The French have shown, under better circumstances, in outcome, a man from nowhere can be the only solution.

  4. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Please disregard all apostrophes in the second comment. Thank-you. 🙂

  5. Eric Jacobson Says:

    Senator, you left something off your list of presidential leadership attributes: A sense of patrimonial responsibility. What the native Americans refer to (in the extreme version) as looking 7 generations ahead for the impacts of public policy decisions they made. It is also expressed in the Biblical prophets’ railing against the iniquity of the people who live selfishly and shortsightedly: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

    By the standard of this ethos our nation’s leadership drought dates back to the early 1960s followed by a brief revival during your presidential campaigns in the 1980s (which lasted less than 2 years all tolled). You spoke eloquently of this theme in your book The Patriot and again briefly when exploring a 2004 presidential race in response to one of the interview questions David Harden-Warwick and I sent you here (which Conversation btw is in its entirety as pertinent today as it was in February 2003): https://web.archive.org/web/20040402110430/http://www.garyhartnews.com/hart/about/conversation.php .

    As the resident dissenter in this comment space about Donald Trump (I was willing to take him seriously until in mid-March he proved himself wholly unworthy of being given such benefit of the doubt) I thought candidate Trump (who had been a Democrat most of his life) “on paper” seemed well-positioned to govern with such patrimonial ideals in mind. At 70, he had parlayed the family fortune he accessed and eventually inherited into a private brand-name empire. He (and his children) lacked for nothing material and could have epitomized the culture of noblesse oblige had the president chosen to govern in the public interest ala moderate Republican president Eisenhower. And “for a minute” it looked as though he might.

    His initial appeal to the electorate stemmed in good part from his indictment of the legalized bribery by the donor class, of politicians at all levels of government. As a former participant in the corrupt system, he purported to be motivated and interested in “draining the swamp” by which the powers-that-be rule America in their private interest.

    Trump also recognized (as did his fellow billionaire maverick Ross Perot in the 1990s) the insanity of attempting to integrate the entire world into one gigantic borderless multi-billion person labor market. Trump seemed to understand intuitively (as someone who had worked with labor unions and had exploited imported laborers to build Trump Tower) that this would inexorably ratchet Americans’ wages down to Third World levels. Trump further seemed to “get” that whereas this was a wet dream for employers such as himself and his company it was a nightmare for American workers, particularly those who worked for manufacturers. In sum, Trump (overall) talked a fairly good game. For further example, he broke ranks with Republican doctrine on entitlements and professed a commitment to uplifting the quality of life in America’s inner cities and the rust belt.

    And, further to his credit (and potential for more-than-adequacy in office) Trump HAD opposed the Iraq War, telling reporters who asked him about it a few days after it started while entering a 2003 Oscars’ party in Hollywood with Melania: “The war’s a mess…” https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2003/03/25/hollywood-partyers-soldiering-on/06327347-83d3-44c4-ab7b-dcd6fbda5437/?resType=accessibility . That opposition matters a great deal. Find another billionaire (other than possibly Ronda Stryker of Michigan, whose name I keep dropping for hopeful future reference) who publicly opposed the Iraq War (or even expressed reservations about it) in real time and I’ll write a (small) check to your favorite charity. Not gonna happen. There were none, and I’m not sure whether Ms. Stryker commented publicly since she was (then and now) barely even a public figure.

    Then too, in what was easily his “finest hour”, candidate Trump stood up to and THRASHED the right-wing of the Republican Party during the 2016 GOP primaries. Down they went, one by one: Phlegmatic Jeb Bush (who, far more importantly than his “low energy” was unrepentant about his brother’s catastrophic, evil Iraq War), relentless Marco Rubio, garrulous Chris Christie, and crazy Ted Cruz. Cruz, who said on video as an 18 year old that he aspired to “world domination” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vt-vG_TdOT4 ) and who grew up to be easily “the most dangerous man in America” still does not know what hit him. It was a sight to behold. Trump even upstaged Cruz by appearing out of a door in the Convention VIP audience section (and diverting the cameras to himself) during Cruz’s asinine Republican Convention non-endorsement speech.

    Then, in the fall of 2016, when the entire political establishment and their vile mainstream media sock puppets viciously turned on him, Trump didn’t flinch. He stayed in the arena and upped the ante (accurately) depicting the media as entirely politicized shot-callers for America’s conservative elites and oligarches. (Yes, conservative. See generally Russell Baker’s reply to Mohammad A. Meah, MD in the 12/18/2003 edition of the New York Review of Books http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2003/12/18/on-not-rocking-the-boat/ , about mainstream journalists’ “extreme conservatism”, a condition that is far worse today. Witness the mainstream media’s continued flogging of the dead-horse Russia-gate” story”, which is plainly a virtually-whole-cloth fabrication.

    Trump risked everything in a high stakes gamble that the maverick nationalistic peaceable-world platform he had enunciated would resonate. He asked for and received small donations from his supporters, which poured in online. And he won! “In some sense” (a phrase I’ve always disliked but it fits here), Trump finished what Bernie Sanders had started.

    The rest is (baleful) history. Within 50 days of taking office (the exact time it took conservatives to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo) Trump surrendered. Trashing all had achieved, he coldly betrayed his voters and essentially committed political suicide by allying 110% with the rightist Reaganaut Republican establishment, jettisoning virtually his entire alternative platform and persona. Down they went, one by one: Populism, protectionism and isolationism (PPI) all went by the wayside.

    His versions of all 3 had been regressive so the main loss (and in hindsight this appears to have been the entire raison-d’etre of the “phenomenon” that will forever bear his name) is to discredit enlightened versions of these doctrines (PPI) along with Trump’s regressive versions. Compare T.A. Frank’s more optimistic take on this point in yesterday’s Vanity Fair, here: http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/05/donald-trump-democrats .

    Absent confessions in Trump’s or others’ memoirs, we’ll never know what really happened. Was it all an elaborate hoax from the get-go? One conjured up in the twisted minds of the alt-right’s 3 stooges (Steve Bannon, Roger Stone and David Horowitz)? All that we really know is that Trump wasted the country’s time and perpetrated the greatest bait-and-switch stunt in world history. Like his hero PT Barnum did, Trump made suckers of the American people.

    It didn’t have to be this way. As I tweeted when his feckless path became evident in mid-March (when he ardently embraced odious Paul Ryan’s Obamacare repeal bill in direct contravention of Trump’s promise that “everyone will be covered” in his replacement bill), by so allying with Reagan Republicans, Trump bought himself a one-way ticket to political Palookaville: https://twitter.com/ECJLA/status/841964243159244802 . Too bad. He “could’ve been a contender….”

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