“Luke, Do You Want to Be President?”
In which I ignore what little prudence I have, and set out to piss people off
To a Mentor-
I wrote up this little reflection on my ambitions, initially for my blog and Facebook, but am now unsure whether or not I’ll share it publicly. I think I have important things for people in here to hear, but it would be uppity and arrogant rather than sage and wise for 22-year old me to counsel my friends to be Noble Romans of Old.
Who knows, by the time you read this I might have jumped the shark and shared it and started taking flak already. But I just figured, since you’re my primary political mentor, that I should send you my thoughts on the subject of what I want to do with my life and how that relates to my personal development.
So I keep getting the “Luke do you want to be President” kind of questions over and over again and I keep giving my same standard self-deprecating canned response: “God save the country if that ever happens.” Sometimes I tell people my true ambitions and say “no but I want to be the Alexander Hamilton to someone’s George Washington.” Sometimes I go a bit deeper and say “I want to be the kind of person about whom people ask ‘is he going to run for President?'”
But I’ve been reflecting on it deeper and deeper, and realized something that’s been driving me for a while. And I would not trust people who were not driven by the same force, with the reins of public life (hence my antipathy to Trump and Clinton, as well as Gary Johnson.)
Since FDR, arguably since Lincoln, and probably since the days of George Washington himself, we’ve inhabited a Presidency-heavy constitutional system- in the White House has been vested the symbolic sanctity of the Union and Republic, of our Liberty itself. It’s always been a lot more than a mere administrative or policy-advocacy office. It’s been a Cincinnatian, perhaps at times a Catonian or Ciceronian office of republican splendor. The President, for better or for worse, has been the face of the nation.
In the last century it has increasingly become an Imperial Presidency, overstepping the old constitutional boundaries that once precluded aspiring Lincolns and TRs from doing great things. That’s probably been for the best- with the sheer complexity of modern industrial society, it’s unclear how else we could have organized things. But that power must be exercised responsibly, with both history and posterity in mind.
And as the power and glory of the Presidency has increased, both in political fact and in the public imagination, so has increased the necessity of true greatness in the souls of those inhabiting the Oval Office. Greatness of the sort with which Cincinnatus, Cato, Cicero, and all those other dead white males would have been intimately familiar.
But partly because of the deconstructionist monstrosity of the fruits of the raging 60s, partly because of the emphasis of ideological principle over networked character that has characterized the parties since Goldwater and McGovern, and partly because of the increasing democratization and reformation of politics since Watergate, it’s been harder for men and women of the character of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln to ascend or even aspire to high office in our Republic. They’re there, but they tend to stick to unelected positions in the Military-Industrial Complex and the Commanding Heights of the economy. When they DO seek public office- and I would say the last two great examples were Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the John McCain of 2000- they’re either largely impotent (Moynihan) or they resort to selling their souls, principles, and character in fraught quests for power (hence McCain’s Palin desperation.)
America since midcentury has been fraught by various social conditions and political reforms that make the crucial mix of Thumos, Arete, and Pietas absolutely impossible in modern statesmen and stateswomen in power. Thus the decline of our politicians from Truman, Johnson, and Nixon (all jerks, but all exceptionally skilled and nonideological politicos) to Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Clinton again (all nice guys/gals, but not particularly competent politicos and certainly not great leaders.) Straight Talk Express McCain 2000 was the closest we got to greatness. It’s a tragedy he chose to change.
I’m not bemoaning the fall of the Republic- it isn’t forthcoming, even in the terror of the present crisis and the coming ones- but its health and glory are not served by the caliber of Presidents we have as options nowadays. And I think there’s a direct correlation between the increasingly ideologized, increasingly democratized politics of the early 21st Century, and the declining character and talent of our leaders.
So what’s the answer?
Quite simple really. We need old-fashioned republican statesmen and stateswomen updated for the 21st Century, “men/women with empires in their purpose and new eras in their brains/branching toward the skyey future, rooted in the fertile past,” who pay more than lip service to the great heroes of Americana- who pay tribute to them in their lives, choices, actions, and characters. Perhaps we need to make systemic reforms that encourage and incentivize such Roman Souls to enter the hubbub of democratic politics in an institutional Republic with the spirit of a Democracy; but ultimately their entry into the political process is their choice, not the result of machinations by people who want them in.
We need less people who want to be President of the United States, and more people who are worthy of being President of the United States.
So what’s my real ambition? What’s my real goal in public life? (Aside from “turn America into a great space-faring Republic, an Empire of the Stars?”)
To be worthy in my soul of assuming the office of President of the United States. Not to actually assume it- to desire assuming that office, particularly nowadays and at my age, is far more vainglorious than noble.
But to so cultivate my character, tend to my intellect, and master the craftsmanship of politics that, should my country ever call, I would be standing by, ready to act, a soul worthy of the stewardship of the Republic. That by no means means I want to be President- and I think our best public servants don’t- but it does mean that in whatever capacity I were serving the public, be it in our national economic apparatus, amid the defense and intelligence community, in the Cabinet or Congress or some statehouse- I would be a leader worthy of heeding my country’s call should it ever come.
In my view there are a few character traits and habits of mind that disqualify anyone from being such a worthy statesman or stateswoman, and I’m not sure that I don’t show them right now-
1-Basing your love of country off of a vision of a golden future or a return to a golden past, and lacking the moral nuance to accept the evil in your country’s heritage- and future- alongside the good. That is to say, being a conservative first and an American second, or a global citizen first and an American second. Conservatives, you need to accept Franklin Roosevelt as an American; Global Citizens, you need to accept Andrew Jackson.
2- Having “becoming President” or something as your primary goal, consciously or subconsciously, and “serving your country” as a second and related goal. No Man or Woman is born to rule. Trump, Hillary.
3- Not easily answering “yes” to “would you die for your country, your countrymen, and your flag?” That, and you need to mean it, and there are few things that suggest you mean it more than actually putting yourself on the line or preparing to put yourself on the line in some form of military service. Not to romanticize military life of course (DuffelBlog exists for a reason) but I continue to hold that it means a lot.
But let’s be real- “be worthy” (and I mean a very different word from “qualified”) is just as great a mountain to climb as “become President of the United States.” The qualities of character and soul requisite of worthiness are a lifetime’s work of action and a lifetime’s thought and reflection, not habits practicable after a week’s cultivation.
Perhaps I’m embarking on a quixotic quest seeking to be worthy. But I’d rather cultivate my soul and serve my country, and fail, than drain my soul and serve myself, and succeed.