Whatever else the New Year brings, at least it won’t be a presidential election or any of the primaries, caucuses, or conventions leading up to it. Which is more than OK with me. American presidential campaigns have grown excruciatingly overlong, and I look forward to a respite from the obsessive political coverage, the ginned-up gaffes and controversies, the rush to dissect each twitch in public opinion, the avalanche of dishonest advertising and disingenuous “fact-checking.”
Of course not everyone agrees, especially in the press corps. “We all have our peculiar tastes,” George F. Will once wrote. “Some people like Popsicles. Others like gothic novels. I like politicians.” Peculiar is right. I won’t say I’ve never met a politician I liked — two or three I’ve even admired — but on the whole I tend to agree with Tom Dobbs, the character played by Robin Williams in the 2006 movie “Man of the Year.” A TV entertainer who runs for president on a lark, Dobbs tells his audience: “Politicians are a lot like diapers; they should be changed frequently, and for the same reason.”
I realize that a democratic republic cannot survive without politicians. And I realize that it’s a lot easier to criticize everything that’s insufferable and grubby in presidential campaigns than to actually campaign for president. At one point this fall, an exasperated Ann Romney had a message for the legions of detractors disparaging her husband’s performance. “Stop it,” she said. “This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring.” Perhaps unknowingly, she was echoing Teddy Roosevelt, who in a famous speech a century earlier had declared that “it is not the critic who counts,” but “the man who is actually in the arena . . . who does actually strive to do the deeds . . . who spends himself in a worthy cause.”
All the same, the US presidency is the most influential and consequential job in the world, and there ought to be some connection between the stature of the office and the toneof the competition to win it. Presidential candidates weren’t always so off-puttingly ravenous in their pursuit of power. For half of American history, it was thought unseemly for candidates to campaign in person. Even Andrew Jackson, who was no shrinking violet, refused as a candidate to attend public dinners or travel out of state. “I have not gone into the highways and market places to proclaim my opinions,” he said with pride in 1827.
Alas, that era vanished long ago. Now we are condemned to presidential campaigns that last for years, with candidates “go[ing] into the highways and market places” thousands of times, and proclaiming their opinions on every conceivable subject in a flood of statements, speeches, debates, TV appearances, and commercials that grows more exhausting with each election cycle. In just the last five months of the 2012 campaign, well over 1 million ads were aired on behalf of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, shattering the previous record.
Must presidential politics be so voluble? Must candidates express their views on absolutely everything? Presidential historian Paul F. Boller notes that one of the nation’s most taciturn presidents — “Silent Cal” Coolidge — was also “one of the most popular men ever to occupy the White House.” Coolidge became president on the death of Warren Harding, Boller writes, “and people at once took to his imperturbable style.” Coolidge was perfectly capable of expressing himself; as president he held 520 press conferences and delivered more speeches than any of his predecessors. But he also understood that voters valued restraint.
Presidential candidates in our day face enormous pressure to always be “on,” ready to voice an opinion or make a promise or provide a reaction to any issue. Maybe we’d find the campaigns less onerous if the candidates were less garrulous. Maybe voters wouldn’t get so weary of the quadrennial procession of politicians coveting the White House if that procession didn’t keep starting earlier and earlier. Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election on Nov. 6, and within days Florida Senator Marco Rubio let it be known that he was headed to Iowa for a Republican fundraiser — “a trip certain to stoke speculation,” as an AP story put it, about a Rubio candidacy in 2016.
Maybe “speculation” was what it stoked among hard-core political junkies. My guess is that among more sensible Americans — the kind of people who prefer Popsicles to politicians — all it stoked was exasperation.