Saturday, June 28, 2008


Anne Applebaum, in a marvelous piece in Slate this week "Nice Guys Finish Last," (subtitled "Why do we expect presidential candidates to be kind?") reminds us at a moment when we need reminding of the bedrock truth of American (not just presidential, if you ask me) politics:

In its wisdom, America has devised a presidential election system that actively selects for egotistical megalomaniacs: You simply cannot enter the White House if you aren't one...Think hard...about what a presidential campaign truly demands of a candidate. To become president, you must love talking about yourself: Talk, talk, brag and talk, every day, every evening, on national television, in the company of newspaper reporters, in every spare moment, and not just for a few days or weeks but for years and years on end. If you don't crave attention; if you don't long for adulation; if you don't, at some level, feel you are God's gift to the American people, then you don't run for president at all...whatever [Obama's and McCain's] many good qualities, both are self-centered, driven, ambitious, calculating, manipulative politicians—because they have to be. That's what it takes to be president of the United States, and we might as well get used to it now.

Even when I "like" a politician, or, crossing my fingers, vote for one, I always try to keep this in mind. When I find myself "disliking" a politician, as I was coming to dislike Hillary Clinton more and more during the latter days of her presidential campaign, I have to remind myself that this is usually because she is nakedly showing her stripes, not because the stripes are new. A gift for nastiness is, as Applebaum points out, a prerequisite for engagement at this political level. A wearied Hillary was just falling below the accepted level of disguising it (and disguising it has frankly never been her strong suit; Bill's much better at that).

Applebaum's essay reminds me of an observation by the dependably brilliant Garry Wills:

Politicians make good company for a while, just as children do -- their self-enjoyment is contagious. But they soon exhaust their favorite subject, themselves...There is a kind of noble discipline in politicians, in persons prepared to devote a lifetime to discourse on a single subject, over and over, with anyone who will listen, anywhere. It inspires a kind of goofy awe, this sight of them ringing a single bell all their lives, hammering at their own heads.

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