It’s amazing to watch more than a dozen hopeful men and women who have, as Theodore Roosevelt put it in 1912, thrown their hats into the ring to run for the Republican nomination for president in 2024. Every one of them is going to hire a big staff, lease an airplane, carom around the country like an errant pinball, burn through millions of dollars, do countless media appearances, sometimes at dawn, huddle behind the curtain with prospective donors, hear some of their secrets revealed on national television and get about five hours of sleep for the weeks or months of their candidacy. Almost every day will begin with the 5 a.m. SUV ride to the airport — in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, and Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday. And then on to Manchester, N.H.
Former Vice President Mike Pence entered the race for the 2024 Republican nomination for president June 7, marking the first time a VP has ever challenged his former running mate to be the party’s standard bearer.
And yet … After all this wear and tear, what Shakespeare called this “throwing about of brains,” and tens or hundreds of millions of dollars thrown away on local attack ads, at the very best only one of them is going to win the nomination. In the law school movies, the stern criminal procedures professor says, on the first day, “Take a look at the person on your left and then the person on your right, and remember, one of you is not going to make it.” In presidential politics, there is nobody to line up a score of presidential hopefuls and say, “You are men and women who are not used to failing, and yet “all but one of you” are going to limp home sooner or later after the most exhausting experience of your life. Good luck.”
What makes Nikki Haley think she will be the 47th president of the United States? Or Chris Christie (pictured atop)? Or Mike Pence? Or Larry Elder? Or Vivek Ramaswamy? Or Asa Hutchinson? Or North Dakota’s Doug Burgum? As of now, it looks like the most probable scenario is a rematch between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It’s the mortality tables more than the usual political dynamics that might disrupt that scenario.
Almost nobody thought Donald Trump would be the next president in 2016, apparently not even Trump himself. At the beginning of the campaign, it appeared that the establishment Republican candidate Jeb Bush, already backed by tens of millions of dollars, would win the nomination. He was gone as quickly as Dan Quayle at a spelling bee.
Who Wants This Job?
Maybe a better question is: Why would anyone want to be the president of the United States? Aspiring to be president qualifies for the cliché “beware of what you ask for.” The great Jefferson called the presidency “splendid misery.” He said he had no more desire to govern men than ride his horse through a storm. The hapless James Buchanan called the presidency “a crown of thorns.” That may qualify as blasphemy. Herbert Hoover said it was like wearing a hair shirt. At the height of the Watergate scandals, Richard Nixon visited the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville (March 16, 1974) and offered — in jest? — to trade the presidency for Roy Acuff’s yo-yo.
In a private letter in 1796, Jefferson wrote, “No man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it. The honeymoon would be as short in that case as in any other, and its moments of ecstasy would be ransomed by years of torment and hatred.” This from a man who said his marriage with Martha Wayles Skelton was “years of unchequered happiness.” Jefferson was right about the presidency. When he retired voluntarily in 1809, he was diminished thanks to the Napoleonic Wars that had severely disrupted American commerce.
After a rough first few months in office, John F. Kennedy acknowledged that being president was not easy. “When I ran for presidency of the United States,” he said publicly July 25, 1961, “I knew that this country faced serious challenges, but I could not realize — nor could any man realize who does not bear the burdens of this office — how heavy and constant would be those burdens.”
The second president, John Adams, said, “No man who ever held the office (of president) would congratulate another on attaining it.” But Adams was a perennial grumbler, and he was bitter that the American people retired him to private life after a single term. Lyndon Johnson said, “Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There’s nothing to do but stand there and take it.”
Even George Washington was roughed up and worn down by the time he retired for the last time in March 1797. Before he took up his post as the first president, Washington wrote a lugubrious letter to his old friend Henry Knox. “For in confidence I tell you … that my movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution; so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life … to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities & inclination which is necessary to manage the helm.”
The Cost of Being President
Have you studied the photographs of presidents at the beginning of their tenure and then the end?
Look at Barack Obama in 2008 and then in 2017. Or LBJ when he left office in the spring of 1969. I can barely stand to look at the last photographs of Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt. President Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke Oct. 2, 1919. His second wife, Edith, essentially assumed the presidency from the distaff side for the remainder of his second term, a full 17 months. This was before the 25th Amendment (1967) made provisions for the incapacitation of a sitting president. Ronald Reagan was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease well before he left office in 1981. President Dwight David Eisenhower suffered a massive heart attack in 1955. He was seriously ill through much of his two terms as president. You can count the number of presidents who left office undiminished on one hand: Theodore Roosevelt, of course, James Monroe, Harry S. Truman, maybe Barack Obama.
Three presidents have been impeached (none successfully). Four have been assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy). Four others survived assassination attempts during their presidencies (Andrew Jackson, 1835, Harry Truman 1950, Gerald Ford, 1975, Ronald Reagan, 1981). President-elect Franklin Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt Feb. 15, 1933, in Miami, just two weeks before he took the oath of office. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest at point blank range Oct. 14, 1912, in Milwaukee, during the Bull Moose Campaign. With blood dripping out of his chest he went on to deliver his 84-minute speech at the Milwaukee Auditorium.
And those are just the incidents we know about.
Beware of What You Ask For
All these presidential aspirants of 2023-2024 must think they could do the job well. But how could they? We are more polarized and divided than at any time since 1861. Serious political observers are suggesting that it might be time to give up the illusion that we are still one America. Maybe it is time to break up the United States into blue and red republics. The name of the game now seems to be to paralyze the president, and if it cannot be done in the political arena, then maybe in the courts. Opposition leaders in Congress now routinely say, publicly or privately, that their goal is to ensure that the president’s tenure is a failure. The idea that we elect a government to find a compromise path to making life better for 340 million Americans is now seen as quaint, a fossil of the civics textbooks we read in junior high. Sometimes today’s America seems more like pro wrestling than Plato’s Republic.
All presidents, particularly the outsiders — recently Donald Trump and Jimmy Carter — have found that governing is way more difficult than they expected. There is a vast federal bureaucracy: 15 cabinet positions, 2,000 federal agencies and more than 2.7 million federal employees. Much of the bureaucracy is entrenched. Every agency has hundreds or thousands of regulations, protocols and procedures. Presidents come and go; the bureaucracy remains.
But even if the whole bureaucratic state chose to pursue the president’s agenda, the United States is now so vast and complicated, and its challenges are now so deeply rooted and intractable, that “turning the country around” would be like trying to turn the Titanic in a bathtub — a bathtub filled with molasses. A full 63 percent of the federal budget is now mandatory spending — servicing the colossal national debt and untouchable social welfare programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Of the 30 percent that is called “discretionary spending,” about a quarter goes more or less automatically to defense. So, you can chip away at the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Education, at foreign aid, at funding for the National Parks or the Indian Health Service, but none of this has more than symbolic value in a $6 trillion budget.
How much power does a president really have? The paradox of our system is that the president has enormous power in some ways and very little in others. The president can take us to war, appoint the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, do things by executive order that would make the Founding Fathers roll over in their graves. And yet most of what gets done in America, from environmental policy to the immigration protocols at the U.S.-Mexican border, has to cut a path through the quagmire of Congress.
Still all these presidential candidates are sipping tea in people’s homes in Iowa, grinning (or grimacing) over barbecue at county fairs and admiring a butter sculpture of Elvis and declaring humbly that they know exactly how to fix America. More than $14 billion was spent in the 2020 presidential election. Everyone expects the 2024 election to spend double that. Call it $25 billion. If we just wrote a check for $203 to every one of America’s 123 million families, maybe we’d be better off.
Looking back on his presidency, Harry Truman said, “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.”
You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing email@example.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.