The Presidency as Fairy Tale
Below is a link to a book review of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest offering Leadership: In Turbulent Times. While I wonder whether or how much of this book has been plagiarized, as has happened in other instances of Goodwin’s work, I am more concerned with yet another hagiography on some of our presidents. This is problematic because, as near as I can reckon, we have not had a decent president since at least the 1950s. More importantly, I believe this phenomenon may be traced to the office itself, which was flawed in its conception and has grown more flawed over the course of American political history.
The fly in the ointment, as it were, was noticed by Benjamin Franklin at the constitutional convention in 1787 when he argued that it would be unwise to create an office that appealed to avarice and the love of honor:
“there are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. Separately each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when created in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men a post of honour that shall at the same time be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.”
Franklin argued that given such an office ‘It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust [who seek such an office]. It will be the bold and violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will thrust themselves into your Government and be your rulers. And these too will be mistaken in the expected happiness of their situation: For their vanquished competitors of the same spirit, and from the same motives will perpetually be endeavoring to distress their administration, thwart their measures, and render them odious to the people.”
So, according to Franklin, the presidency would not only encourage “the bold and violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits” to seek that office, but this office would lead to a political system that would be constantly characterized by partisan warfare as others, also bold and violent, sought to undermine a sitting president and his administration. And it would seem, given our situation today, Franklin was quite prescient in his speculations.
Hence, while Goodwin wants us to look to the presidency for our political salvation, insofar as Franklin was and is correct, we should rather be looking for ways to reform the presidency, to make it less attractive to those human beings who crave both profit and honor. Several possibilities come to mind, of course. But perhaps the most obvious one would also be the best one: Limit presidents to one term of six years, after which such officials would be banned from serving in any federal office. This would lessen the appeal of that office to those who wish to acquire a reputation for “greatness,” thereby encouraging others, less enamored of such honors and their accompanying “profits,” to seek the office. Could or would we be any worse off than we are today?