The Failure of Normality
The unhappy lessons of the Thompson campaign.
Feb 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 20 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
As late as the 1970s, the constant motion that modern presidential candidates subject themselves to was still of recent enough vintage that Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky, in their great book Presidential Elections, felt the need to account for it. "Everybody does it because it is the fashion," they wrote, "and the spectacle of seeing one's opponent run around the country at a furious pace without following suit is too nerve-wracking [for a candidate] to contemplate. It is beside the point that no one knows whether all this does any good."
The traditional restraint of old-time presidential candidates wasn't arrogance or sanctimoniousness, the twin accusations that wised-up politicos made against Thompson during the campaign. There was a philosophical component to it too: By not seeming overeager--no matter how eager they were--candidates paid tribute to the democratic idea that political power is best sought, taken on, and used reluctantly. It was also a matter of seemliness, and Thompson, alone among recent candidates, felt its pull. In his stump speech he often mentioned George Washington, once a staple of political rhetoric for his willingness to walk away from the power that was thrust upon him. Today Washington's restraint seems nothing more than an archaism. And by extolling it Thompson sounded merely odd.
"If people really want in their president a super type-A personality," Thompson said at that Iowa town hall meeting, "someone who has gotten up every morning and gone to bed every night thinking for years about how they could achieve the presidency of the United States, someone who could look you straight in the eye and say they enjoy every minute of campaigning--I ain't that guy."
But does "super type-A personality" really describe the kind of person who runs for president nowadays? It's not pleasant to think of the life they lead, these Americans who would be president, from the first hints of dawn to well past midnight, this life of endless demands, this succession of superficial sociability, in which you smile and smile and pop your eyes wide open in delighted wonder at the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of faces and places that circles before you, and you haven't the time or leisure to settle on a single one. Charming countryside, pretty little towns, sprawling centers of commerce and industry fly by and you haven't a moment to enjoy them or learn their tales. You rush to meet hundreds of people a day and never have a meaningful exchange of words with any of them.
From the backseats of freezing cars and vans you're hustled into overheated coffee shops and those packed school gymnasiums with the stink rising to the rafters and then the oppressive hush of corporate meeting rooms, where your nose starts to run and a film of sweat forms under your wool pullover, and you press the outstretched hands that carry every bacterial pathogen known to epidemiology. You open your mouth and you release the same cloud of words you recited yesterday and the day before. And in the Q&A, when you stop to listen, you hear the same questions and complaints from yesterday, the same mewling and blame-shifting, all imploring you to do the impossible and through some undefined action make the lives of these unhappy citizens somehow edifying, uplifting, and worth living. And you always promise you will do that; you have no choice but to tell this kind of lie.
There's no rest, because there's not a moment to waste: The handful of minutes away from the kaleidoscope are spent chatting with the scorpions of the press, the ill-dressed, ill-mannered reporters from the prints and the pretty, preening peacocks of TV, each of them either a know-it-all or a cynic or a dope, take your pick, and each of whom, for professional and other reasons, will deploy all his energies and cleverness to the task of trapping you into a misstatement or ungenerous remark or expression of irritation so he can convey to his editors and the world that--at last!--you've made a gaffe; and if you won't make a gaffe then he will convey to his editors and the world how "scripted" and "over rehearsed" you sound; kind of slick, almost robotic, inauthentic.
When the scorps are dismissed, in the seconds before you pass from the freezing van to the overheated gym or boardroom, a sycophant whose name you can't remember hands you a cell phone that connects you to a rich man whose face you dimly recall from another boardroom last summer and you beg him to give you money, or more often--considering the grinding pressure you feel for cash, always for cash--you beg him to assemble a circle of other rich men that he can beg on your behalf, and when you sign off you don't have time to be grateful. There will be more calls before dinner and after dinner, and dinner is a cold thigh of chicken in a sump of clotted gravy served from a steam table in a freezing cinderblock banquet room at the Lions Club, and a hundred pairs of eyes fix themselves on you--a celebrity, someone they've seen on TV--as you dribble the gravy on your shirtfront. And after you release the same words and hear the same complaints you go to bed in a Hampton Suites for five hours of sleep on starchy sheets with dimly visible stains whose origins are impossible to discern, and from the corner the digital display on the microwave flashes 12:00 12:00 12:00 . . .
And you do all this so you can wake up the next morning and do it again. Because you like it.
The man or woman who seeks out such a life and enjoys its discomforts is not normal. Not crazy necessarily, but not normal, and probably, when the chips are down, not to be trusted, especially when the purpose of it all is to acquire power over other people (also called, in the delicate language of contemporary politics, "public service" or "getting things done on behalf of the American people"). The case is made, in defense of the contemporary campaign, that this is an efficient if unlovely way to choose leaders: It winnows out those who lack the stamina and discipline necessary to lead a rich, large, powerful, and complicated country. By this argument, Thompson failed because he deserved to.
But the opposite case is easier to make--that the modern campaign excludes anyone who lacks the narcissism, cold-bloodedness, and unreflective nature that the process requires and rewards. In his memoir -Greenspan remarks that of the seven presidents he has known well, the only one who was "close to normal" was Jerry Ford. And, as Greenspan points out, Ford was never elected.
Fred Thompson probably feels terrible at the moment, but he should be honored to be in Ford's company.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.