July 18, 2008

How to Choose an American President

In 1852, a few years before the launch of the Civil War, a man named Franklin Pierce captured the American presidency. Pierce had practiced law in his home state of New Hampshire, gained the rank of brigadier general in the Mexican-American War, and even served in the U.S. Senate. It was no wonder why he became the Democratic nominee for the presidency: handsome, experienced, liked by all. Who else could make such a stunning candidate?

Yet the Pierce presidency was pocked with controversy. In 1854, Pierce brought about the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (Bleeding Kansas, anyone?) that outraged abolitionists and that later spurred the creation of the Republican Party. When Pierce came up for re-election a few years later, the Democrats---his own allies---decided to nominate someone else onto the ticket. Suffice to say, he left office in a cloud of shame and has now become one of the lowest-ranking presidents in U.S. history.

So how do we, as Americans, choose a good president? In this historic election year, the media likes to focus on a candidate's experience or likeability or skeletons-in-the-closet---but history has shown that such traits offer little insight on how a person performs in the Oval Office. Franklin Pierce is a good example of this: in 1852, he won in an utter landslide of electoral votes but he turned out to be a lackluster president. Pierce entered his presidency liked by many but he left the White House reviled by all.

First, let's talk about experience. John Adams, the second president of the United States, started his four years in office with more experience than our current Senate combined. In his political career, he helped spearhead the movement for the American revolution and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. Yet when Adams took over the presidency, he oversaw the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which punished those who openly criticized the government. Ultimately, the Adams presidency was overshadowed by his predecessor George Washington and his successor Thomas Jefferson. Considering all of his experience, John Adams's most important contributions were accomplished outside of the White House.

Second, let's talk about likeability. In 2000, George W. Bush wooed voters with his darn good, aw-shucks personality. Here was a man who seemed down-to-earth and charming. Here was a man who you wanted to have a beer with! But eight long years of Bush shithood has proven that likeability can only carry someone so far. When Dubya vacates the presidency in January of next year, he will leave behind a messy and unnecessary war in Iraq whose price-tag continues to sky-rocket. And let's not even talk about America's reputation abroad. (Hmmm, an Al Gore presidency doesn't seem so bad now after all...)

Third, let's talk about so-called skeletons-in-the-closet a la Whitewater and the current Tony Rezko scandal. In the late 1800s, Chester A. Arthur rose to prominence through the corrupt New York political machine and was patronized by the political boss Roscoe Conkling. In a strange twist of events though, when Arthur assumed the presidency in 1881, he began a series of civil service reforms that attacked the political machines that he had benefited from. And so, Arthur proved that a few skeletons-in-his-closet didn't send his presidency in a hopeless nose-dive. Chester proved that he may have done some crooked things in his life, but this didn't mean that he was a crook.

So how do we choose an American president? To recap this litle history lesson, a candidate's experience and likeability and lack of controversy may not add up to a great and wonderful president. Obama's message of hope and change may deflate to nothing after he is elected. Conversely, McCain's military and political experience may do nothing but hurt him in this fast-paced, changing world.

So how the hell do we choose a good president? Honestly, I have no idea---and history offers little advice.

Guess we're all on our own...

*Still...I remain an Obama girl at heart. If I gotta take a gamble, then I'd rather bet on him over Leisure World McCain who may nominate Mitt Romney as his VP. Yuck.
**Check out those chops on Chester Arthur! Talk about sexy.


  1. Anonymous8:15 AM

    What never ceases to amaze me is how many people can look at their past poor choices for political office and not doubt their own ability to choose a political candidate. If I had made as bad a decision as voting for our current president, twice, I would seriously question my political acumen. Yet, as much as people criticize the current administration, many of those discontents voted for him not once, but TWICE. And just as many are sure that they've got a candidate they can count on in this upcoming election. That lack of self-awareness is one of the most dangerous trends our political systems faces.


  2. hi caroline, i have to sound off here:)

    i agree that it is hard to choose a president, especially given our lack of good candidates for the job. the way we end up with the candidates we do, and the myriad of problems therein, is a whole other subject all together.

    that being said, as voters we do the best we can, with what we've got, where we are (as roosevelt said). during the 2004 and 2000 elections, Bush was the best choice, which is why he won.

    the american public is fickle, and no one will admit to that. when the war was proposed, it was overwhelmingly popular. the vote sailed through congress, and the polls showed huge support from the american people.

    given the info and events of the time, it was the best choice. hindsight is 20/20 and we see things differently now, so it's easy to say 'should have' to the Bush administration.

    now, we face another election and in the future people will probably look back with that same perfect hindsight and claim the path was obvious, as murky as it looks now.

    on obama, i'll give it to him that he was one of the very few opposed to the war all along. besides the other things i disagree with him on, i think it's very telling about him that he is suddenly taking the middle road on pull-out from iraq. he is a true 'politician,' saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said.

    okay, enough from me...great post, i learned a lot!

  3. Hey Meredith! Thanks for your interesting comment and thanks for visiting my blog again!

    In my opinion, the Iraq War was doomed and ill-planned from the start. We don't even need hindsight to point this out. Senator Jim Webb's new book "A Time to Fight" demonstrates how we bumbled into this war with an attitude of complete naivete and arrogance. Webb, a former Secretary of the Navy, held a firm opinion in 2003 that Bush was making a huge mistake by entering the war. He and many others opposed the war from the very beginning---but their views were ignored and pushed aside.

    I don't expect our presidents to be perfect. But I do expect them to utilize caution and diplomacy and careful calculation before running off to start a war. Bush did none of those things. There were plenty of naysayers in 2003 who had built a strong case against a war in Iraq, yet nobody paid close attention to their arguments. (Not even the politicians I had voted for! Humph!)

    Sorry, I have strong feelings about Iraq since my husband might have to serve there...

    As for Obama and McCain, I have noticed both of them shifting on issues during this long haul of a primary. Obama has moved more to the center while McCain has moved more to the right. It's been interesting to see...

    On one hand, I think shifting one's views can be a good thing because this shows a candidate is willing to admit he or she is wrong. Thus, I'm happy Obama moderated his position in Iraq because I'm unsure a 16-month withdrawal is feasible.

    On the other hand, a politician's shifting views can also translate into political pandering. Mitt Romney comes to mind as he transformed from a moderate Massachusetts Republican to an NRA-loving, immigration-bashing ultra-conservative. You could also accuse Obama of pandering to political moderates because he has changed his plans on Iraq and has softened some views on abortion rights.

    If anything, this election has taught me that politicians will always do the flip-flop dance--just as the sun will rise every morning. I guess it is up to us as voters to try to sniff out the difference between a change of heart and a political pander. (Or is there any difference at all?)