Gene Healy: ‘Early American Political Culture Held that Anyone who Seemed to Relish the Idea of Wielding Power Couldn’t Be Trusted with it. No Longer’

George W. Bush Library Dedication

It Doesn’t Matter If Campaigning For President Is Fun

healyGene Healy writes:

….There was a time, however, when we approached presidential selection with the sobriety a serious choice demands. In a penetrating 2003 article, The Joy of Power: Changing Conceptions of the Presidential Office, political scientist Richard J. Ellis explains that Americans used to look for a very different demeanor when assessing potential presidents.

“You’d never catch that guy grinning, nor, prior to the twentieth century, any of the others.”

‘My God: what is there in this office that any man should want to get into it?’

“In the beginning,” Ellis writes, “the presidency was envisioned not as an office to be enjoyed, but as a place of stern duty.” In fact, “one would be hard-pressed to find a single president between George Washington and Grover Cleveland of whom it could be said that he appeared to have fun in the exercise of presidential power.”

[Read the full text here, at thefederalist.com]

Early American political culture took it as self-evident that anyone who seemed to relish the idea of wielding power over others couldn’t be trusted with it. Our first president set the standard for presidential bearing: “dutiful and reluctant.”

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“Over the course of the twentieth century, thanks in part to the two Roosevelts, cultural norms shifted, even as the executive branch grew radically in size and power.”

As Washington put it: “I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me than to be attended at the Seat of Government by the Officers of State and the Representatives of every Power in Europe.” Or, as Cleveland once moaned, “My God: what is there in this office that any man should want to get into it?”

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“Presidents today are supposed to take pleasure in the job. Those who dislike or at least complain about it are assumed to be psychologically suspect.”

— political scientist Richard J. Ellis

Throughout the nineteenth century, the public norms surrounding political power mandated a “low-energy” campaign, in which the candidates “stayed home in dignified silence, ready to serve if called by the people.” Even Andrew Jackson, the first candidate to style 51BZC+zfo3L._SL250_himself the champion of the popular will, refused to hit the hustings: “I meddle not with elections; I leave the people to make their own president,” he said.

[Order Gene Healy’s book “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power” from Amazon.com]

You’d never catch that guy grinning, nor, prior to the twentieth century, any of the others. In the popular images of nineteenth-century presidents, Ellis writes, “it is difficult if not impossible to find an exuberant or smiling president.”

Enter the Self-Styled Larger than Life

Over the course of the twentieth century, thanks in part to the two Roosevelts, cultural norms shifted, even as the executive branch grew radically in size and power. “Presidents today are supposed to take pleasure in the job,” Ellis writes, and be happy warriors on the campaign trail. “Those who dislike or at least complain about it are assumed to be psychologically suspect.”

Ambivalence toward the responsibilities of power and the demands of modern campaigning ought to be considered evidence of a candidate’s mental health.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Ambivalence toward the responsibilities of power and the demands of modern campaigning ought to be considered…(read more)

Source: thefederalist.com



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