To impose some order on the current chaotic state of presidential politics, I decided to go on my own listening tour of presidential historians and other assorted wise men and women.
"Every presidential election is a renewal," says David McCullough, Harry Truman's biographer. "Like spring, it brings up all the juices. The people are so tired of contrivance and fabrication and hokum. They really want to be stirred in their spirit. That's when we are at our best. The great presidents are people who caused those who follow them to do more than they thought they were capable of."
"The American people," says Cornel West, author of "Race Matters," "want a statesman who will tell the truth about our collective life together, good and bad, up and down, vices and virtues. That is the ultimate act of respect for the American people."
The conventional wisdom holds that people want that which they don't have. So after the dark duplicity of Richard Nixon, we chose the grinning honesty of Jimmy Carter. And after the frugal malaise of Carter, we opted for the robust charisma of Ronald Reagan. Now, dizzy and nauseated from the spin-filled Clinton years, it's no wonder we crave authenticity.
"We want different things from presidents at different times," says historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. "There is a latent reserve of idealism in the American people, which presidents like Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson and Kennedy tapped. I think it's waiting to be tapped again despite the anesthesia of prosperity."
"What a successful president does," William F. Buckley Jr. agrees, "is transcend the usual marketplace collisions. FDR accomplished that, and so did Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. A successful president isn't necessarily one who takes us in a direction I applaud. But he is somebody who does get the country excited about a political purpose."
Add presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and one begins to see a consensus. "We need to get away from a political system that is so filled with minute public opinion polls and focus groups and the ability to know what the electorate is thinking at every moment," says Goodwin, "that the leader loses his instincts for boldness. The job is not simply to reflect current opinion but to challenge it, move it forward and shape it. The ability to just take a stand and know that you can move the country to that stand is a lost art we need to recapture."
So instead of a Chief Executive Officer to oversee what has become our country's sole measure of success -- the expanding economy -- are we looking for a leader who can inspire, educate and mobilize us? "The great thing about Kennedy," says McCullough, "is that he didn't say I'm going to make it easier for you. He said it's going to be harder. And he wasn't pandering to the less noble side of human nature. He was calling on us to give our best. I was one of those people -- and there were thousands of us who threw aside our jobs, whatever we were doing, to answer the call."
It is a call that transcends ideology. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) identified "the ability to inspire Americans" as the quality most needed at this moment. And he, too, reached back to that defining moment in our history -- JFK's speech proposing the Peace Corps: "Young people were willing to live in a village hut in Africa for years and dig irrigation ditches. Why were they willing to do that? Why were they in fact eager to do that? It's because he inspired them to do it." Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who nearly ran for president this time, echoed the same feeling: "A great president is one who successfully calls on all Americans to be their own best selves."
So the emerging tension of campaign 2000 is between candidates from both parties vying for Guardian of the Good Times and the dawning recognition -- which has already shaken up the Gore campaign and transformed its rhetoric -- that small-caliber issuettes, which worked in 1992 and 1996, just aren't enough this time. As Jesse Jackson puts it, "What America needs now is a president who can define our national interest in terms broad enough to include the interests of all Americans." Norman Mailer agrees that the next president needs to redefine our national priorities to care for the least among us. "If we are the splendid Judeo-Christian nation we claim to be," he says, "then let's prove it by putting our money where our mouth is."
This emphasis on the public good is likely to become a dominant theme of campaign 2000, superseding the message of the '90s: "It's the booming economy, stupid." "All three front-runners have a sense that the American people want something beyond narrow individualism and crude materialism," says West. "The question is, who's gonna be real about it?"
"The old energizing myths have lost their power," says Gary Hart, "and the leaders who will be our mythmakers, our storytellers, our visionaries have not emerged yet. Both the Democratic myth in the ability of government to provide a social safety net and the Republican myth that the rising tide will lift all boats have atrophied. Neither offers a compelling vision of a greater future beyond consumption."
After many long years of unedifying, divisive campaigns that appealed only to our narrowest self-interest, isn't it time we recognized that our search for a great president is also a search for our better selves? So finally a litmus test that matters: Which presidential candidate can lead us to do more good than we think we're capable of?
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