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The Presidents We Need and the Ones We Elect

I’ve been reading a collection of essays by Gore Vidal written over the second half of the twentieth century.  They range from fascinating literary criticism to his views on culture and politics, written in an elegant style which does nothing to blunt his eviscerating approach to most of his generally unlucky subjects.  In 1967 he wrote about the Kennedy’s in an essay for Esquire titled, “The Holy Family,” a rather unhappy look at “Camelot” and the ambitions of the father – Joe – visited on the sons – Jack, Bobby, and Ted.  In it he muses on the question, “What sort of men (sic) ought we to be governed by in the coming years?”  His response, written before the Nixon debacle and the Bush/Clinton dynasties, neither of which show signs of fading away, is prescient.

“With the high cost of politics and image-making, it is plain that only the very wealthy or those allied with the very wealthy can afford the top prizes.  And among the rich, only those who are able to please the people on television are Presidential.  With the decline of the religions, the moral sense has become confused, to say the least, and intellectual or political commitments that go beyond the merely expedient are regarded with cheerful contempt not only by the great operators themselves but also by their admirers and, perhaps, by the electorate itself.”

It’s not hard to imagine what Vidal would make of the Clinton fund raising juggernaut already in high gear, or of the role of individuals with fat checkbooks like the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson in our political process. 

Vidal goes on to say that “one does not necessarily demand of our leaders passion (Hitler supplied the age with quite enough for this century) or reforming zeal (Mao Tse-tung is incomparable), but one does insist that they possess a sense of community larger than simply personal power for its own sake, being first because it’s fun.”  Passion, of course, is much in vogue today and shows no sign of retreat, stoked by the Tea Party and by talk radio and cable TV of the red and blue varieties.  That “sense of community larger than simply personal power for its own sake” gets scant attention, though surely we can find it in Washington beyond the bluster and bravado.   One hopes!

Lydia and I visited the Lincoln sites in Springfield, Illinois over a long weekend this month, and it was hard not to compare his presidency to some of the more contemporary travesties described by Gore Vidal.  Lincoln, of course, was not without ambition and, as Steven Spielberg portrayed in his recent movie, Lincoln was not above the rough and tumble of back room political coercion to get things done.  But even a deeply critical eye finds it hard to see in Lincoln a desire for “personal power for its own sake, being first because it’s fun.”  The larger community became symbolized both by his efforts to preserve “the Union” and, eventually (though he was admittedly slow to this), by his recognition that African Americans needed to be included in the national community, fully equal and free. 

The game of presidential politics as it is played today evokes both rage and cynicism, each of which is corrosive to the national community.  The spectacle of the Clintons stroking their donors in preparation for a run by Hillary – or as Bill suggested, eventually Chelsea! - or of Congressional zealots positioning themselves for 2016 by shutting down the government this month is sickening.  Are we simply destined for a long political vaudeville show like the Republican primaries in 2011 and 2012?  A visit to Springfield and the places of Lincoln’s political formation suggests that something else can be possible.  In its absence Vidal opines that “we may soon find ourselves enjoying a strange new era in which all our lives and dreams are presided over by smiling, interchangeable, initialed gods.”  Increasingly, it seems, the presidents we are asked to elect are not the ones we really need.

 John H. Thomas
October 24, 2013

People in this conversation

  • This is a great reflection on the problem of the paradoxes of freedom and democracy and Gore Vidal's conceit which lies somewhere between Plato's Republic and Machiavelli's Prince. We are definitely in a "strange new era" wherein elections are fast becoming the realm of media gods, e.g. icons (we elect) and politics a new brand of televangelism/televangelists (not the One we really need)!

    from Chicago, IL, USA

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