Thoughts on the Proper, Almost Perfect President

by Seymour Schechtman

Our incomparable, most successful, least efficient political system is again in full frenzy with its most important quadrennial function--the presidential ballet, quadrille, follies, or election! You name it, all the above will fit as we go forth democratically to convince ourselves by the free ballot and almost completely unfettered free speech about who is best fit to rule us for four more years. So herewith some sage mini profundities that may help one retain emotional balance as we assess the various claims, prophecies. and appeals that are made to beguile and persuade and obtain your precious vote.

Be duly aware that this noisy, cumbersome, and inefficient system has created the most political breathing room--and hope!- in human history, and is mainly responsible for our being not only the most powerful nation in human history but also the most reasonably compassionate place for human life. (In my humble opinion, that is. And also the opinion of the millions who constantly vote with their feet and continually want to immigrate.)

Indeed we generate annually so much economic wealth--- almost ten trillion dollars, probably as much as that of half the value produced by all the rest of the nations, ( not to mention our uncounted-officially- “under the table”-untaxed, economy) one should not be surprised at the time and energy involved in the political struggle to influence, if not control the elected and appointed officials who have the power of legitimate political office. Our “presidential preliminaries” have been going on for over a year and now the serious business of post convention campaigning just begins. In all several billions dollars will be spent, but if this money can legitimately gain some measure of input in swaying important legislation or bureaucratic regulation it will be well spent by the involved financial and commercial interests. Indeed, the Supreme Court has ruled that this so called “soft money” is a form of free speech, a form of influence that is not in itself undue or a form of corruption. In the context of the ten to twelve trillion dollar marvelous cascade of goods and services produced, a few billions spent here and there to tap into that torrent and access more of its beneficial flow has been called, somewhat derisively, mere “chump change”!!

While we all glory in this triumph of the capitalistic, free enterprise, not too stringently regulated business system, there is still an overarching governmental structure that still has necessary duties of oversight and regulation in the public interest. At the center of this important power center in a democratic government is the elected public official. The much reviled “politician”. He is treated oftimes with contempt because he literally always has his hand out seeking money. If not to augment his pay at least to help fund his next campaign for office. in 2, 4 or 6 years---be he congressman, president or governor, or senator. In a word he or she is scandalously underpaid.- The president of this most powerful nation in the world does not earn much more than a starting player in the National Football League!!---and since most are not rich from other sources, money becomes “the mother’s milk of politics”. Running for political office is expensive and since there is literally a torrent of money available to at least gain access and perhaps influence legislators on all levels of government one must realistically face the fact that “heroes are not born but made”. There is inevitably that fine line that should not be crossed, that divide that separates and protects principle and inherent political value from the corrupting power of serving only, or mainly, the interests of the well financed who may have so generously contributed to the expensive election and re-election campaigns. And therefore the inevitable dilemma of the demon god of Mammon and the heroic struggle of the virtuous idealistic politician to resist or at least moderate the lure of ifs corrupting blandishments. Every day while in office, perhaps, there is a balancing act between the vested business interests and the ordinary constituent of his district and who one should really support. Sometimes if takes heroic deeds to “bite the hand” that has immediately solicited and also funded him.

Since most of us are aware of this uncomfortable juxtaposition of money and political power tend to revile the professional politician, suspecting his essential integrity and automatically downgrading him to the level of used car salesman. We have perennial crusades for campaign finance reform to “take the money out of politics” at the electoral, voting level but are adamant about keeping the politician’s working salary at low six figure levels, entry level pay for many athletic and entertainment performers, even though our very lives are tied to the decisions of the political process. The president’s salary--,let me reiterate -- leader the most powerful nation in the world!!- is about $250,000 a year, just slightly more than entry level pay for a rookie starting in the National Football League!! And when Congress attempts to legislate its own pay increase many times the wrath of the tax payer becomes overwhelmingly manifest. If memory serves correctly, just a few years ago, before our present lush times, one such modest attempted pay raise had to be revoked after initial passing because of constituent displeasure. If we merely doubled or even tripled our legislators salaries--a budget item of a few hundred millions a year--think of how less vulnerable to soft money blandishments and the billions of dollars of influence money they would be! It would be instant “campaign finance reform” we could accomplish, and how many very able people the political process could increasingly then attract.!!

There are many elaborate finance reforms awaiting in the wings. It is the political equivalent of motherhood and family values now. But when our elite members of congress get through legislating all th e sophisitcated loopholes needed to somehow sustain the vital flow of needed “mother’s milk” money you will have legalese that only high powered lawyers (naturally) will be able to interpret at very handsome fees. Simple pay raises retain our legislators dignity and independance and spare us additional legal folderol.

There will most probably come a time when some “duplicity” will have to be admitted. Some changing of the course that may “betray” some inviolable pledges and platform promises. We in the electorate are really searching for the inner integrity of the candidate to see if our trust will not be violated when some unforeseen or historic change is necesesary. Is he “selling out” or changing course in the nation’s true interest and security? (Nixon went to China, Johnson escalated the Vietnam war, Reagan increased the deficit, Clinton became more centrist and downsized welfare.) We are judging to what extent our prospective president is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. How much of what he vows he will do is really feasible. His core philosophy versus his more nebulous but nice fringe fancies. Our durable but compromise prone two party system has diverse and opposing factions within its broad coalition that have to be satisfied, or at least appeased. Abrupt but necessary major course changes demand the utmost of the inner worth and credibility of our president in marshaling our vital support, or at least mollifying the base that has felt “betrayed” That it was not possible in the Vietnam War made our whole exposure there unsuccessful.

A kind of grace under fire is needed and this is not learned in a textbook. It is inherent to a degree--and this is one the things beside overt programs and past performance we seek to divine, as indicated above--and it is usually honed to perfection in the rough and tumble of active politics or the successful interaction with people in the business world. In the confines of the Academic world it is perhaps read about--Machiavelli, Clauswitz, deToqueville, Reisman, Thucydides etc.- but it is not any where near hands on experience. While a college degree is a good beginning in understanding the background of our cultural heritage added academic degrees do not testify to one’s expertise in dealing with human beings in a way to inspire and lead them successfully. Rather the experience of the cloistered halls of academe leads to dealing in abstractions and formulas for success, not with the flesh and body sometimes recalcitrant reality of the human entity. Plato, in ancient Greece had his renowned Academy in Athens; the dictator of Syracuse persuaded him to help him govern his city state for several years. The results of this practical immersion in political life were mixed at best, and Plato happily retreated to the pleasant Athenian abstract design for the good life. Many times I hear the sighing of the disgusted voter citizen of our time complaining about the patently incompetent choices our system “dredges up” for our frustrated electoral choice. The classic answer to this simplistic soul is Bill Buckley’s. “I would rather be ruled by any of the first two thousand names in the Cambridge Directory than any of the Harvard Faculty.” I also think that he would gladly accept any of the last two thousand names and or any in between.

\ If possible one must also guard against too much emotional investment in the final “deliberate” choice one makes. Unfortunately we are afflicted by an imperial presidency, where our ultimate political choice, the most powerful person in the world, the President of the United States, is rigourously scrutinized, immensely glamourized ( with his wife), idolized by friend and satirized by foe. Unrealistically all the media hype attendant to his period in office tends to lift him to a super status for many of his supporters, with criticism of his actions tending to be very upsetting. That he may have feet of clay at times, personally and politically, is hard to take for those who regard him with almost saviour like status. Also, one must remember that in four to eight years this vast presidential personna in one’s live will be no more, on the sidelines of history’s pageant that he or she once helped to shape and control, with perhaps now only the same power and input as the rest of us.

Above all one must accept with some degree of philosophic resignation that many times “the devil sends a good man to do a good deed at the wrong time” Many times the best intentions are subverted by the swirl of changing events, no matter how skillful and well intentioned the leader. But gloriously enough at times we have also had in place a leader who can who seize the changing temper of the times for most positive accomplishments. I am thinking specifically of a laughable, insignificant man who stood falteringly in the immense shoes of the late, legendary FDR, dead at the start of his last term in office. His name was Truman, Harry S., and every body high and low said Harry Who?? It would be very nice to say that the great Roosevelt chose deliberately and wisely in Truman’s selection as his final running mate, but Roosevelt also said Harry Who?? for he was very ill and was mustering his failing energies to the crucial peace treaties at the end of the world’s greatest war. And so afterthought Harry Truman, a machine politician from St. Louis--a Prendergast machine loyalist with several terms in the Senate, and on the periphery of the peace discussions, no college education, from middle America with no surface “class”, but a very astute politician, who incidentally and humbly said “boys, pray for me” to the press corps as he took high office. And he did marvelous credit to the common man and the American democratic faith. Four mighty deeds at least........Dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, thus ending the war and saving many American lives.......starting the Marshall Plan to forestall communism in Europe.......Recognizing the Jewish State in Israel.......and desegregating the army after the war. And both latter deeds done against strong inner circle opposition!!

There he was, certainly a little man caught in big events--sighting down the mighty barrel of historic events with consequences of immense importance that are still powerfully in play, and Harry Truman rose to great historic height, each time a hero as if to the occasion born by his correct actions. But still merely a fallible human being, but also able to give “his critics hell” as Tom Dewey found out, and also the music critics who did not think his daughter Margaret was such a great concert artist.!

So perhaps a bit of Providence is in order in constructing our presidential paradigm of the proper, almost perfect president. After all, “in God we trust” ---- and “under One Nation, under God, in Liberty and Justice forever!” And after all sometimes we really do believe that God does believe that too--whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House.