Crouching Candidates, Hidden Presidents

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 06/14/07

[Image: “Freedom of Speech” by Norman Rockwell.]

What is the use of being elected or reelected, unless you stand for something?

— Grover Cleveland

I’ve been trying to figure out which of our candidates is transformationa (a concept Idiosynchronic gives me way too much credit for defining) — analyzing their rhetoric inch by inch, bit by bit.  One fallacy with this approach is, of course, that certain candidates use speechwriters, so their inspirational words are different from their actual candidacies.  (In fact, the only candidates or potential candidates whom I know for sure aren’t using speechwriters are Al Gore and Mike Gravel.)  But liberalamerican, in his recent diary on Truman, hinted at another problem with my reasoning that hadn’t occurred to me before:

I am going to venture a theory that I have never seen anywhere else: Harry Truman won in 1948 because he didn’t care. That gave him a tremendous advantage, because he was not afraid to lose.

I don’t know whether liberalamerican’s theory on Truman is unique or not, but I think he raises an important point.  While candidates who aren’t afraid to lose don’t always win elections (look, famously, at Henry Clay, who “would rather be right than be President”), they almost always do better at inspiring and rousing the public than candidates who care more about winning than about leading.

An excellent example of the latter is Bill Clinton, who sacrificed his health-care plan and environmental legislation to boost his poll numbers and defeat Bob Dole in the 1996 election.  Clinton was a master of playing the lesser of two evils, but terrible at uplifting those he was supposed to serve.  His example, and the ruined party that he left in his wake, should serve as a cautionary tale for all politicians who seek to trade in their ethics for votes.

In a perfect political world, ethics-compromising for votes would be considered as morally bankrupt as bribery is actually illegal.  Since we can’t preach morality to our fellow citizens, our best hope is to elect candidates who, unlike the Clintons, would at the end of the day rather be right than be President, in the hopes that they will lead America by their example into a new era of righteousness.

But how can we tell the difference between a fast-talking charlatan and the real deal?  This is the question that has preoccupied me for quite some time, since we who loathe Reagan know that the people can be lulled by false prophets just as easily as by true ones.  When I read liberalamerican’s quote about Truman, I knew I had at last found what may be the critical piece of the answer: we know because true inspirational leaders are unafraid to stand for what they believe in, no matter what the political cost.

John F. Kennedy was fascinated with such leaders who were fearless in doing right; he profiled eight of them in his Profiles in Courage.  But are all principled leaders inspirational?  Try as one might, one would be hard-pressed to see Harry Truman as an inspirational leader; the same goes for such objects of Kennedy’s fascination as John Quincy Adams (genius though he was) or Edmund Ross.

So leaders who stand up for what they believe in and don’t care whether they lose but can’t talk about it in a way that inspires people don’t make for transformational leadership.  But, just as we’ve seen with Barack Obama of late, the opposite also holds true: great orators who are unwilling to stand up for what they believe in and accept the political consequences are similarly uninspiring.  The key to transformational leadership is both — a merging of inspirational rhetoric and tenacious ethicism.

This was why liberal Americans rallied to the cause of Howard Dean in 2003: it was obvious the man didn’t care whether he won or lost, and yet was able to talk about his ideas in a manner that moved millions to action and renewed a certain segment of society (broadly, the liberal base).  Today, despite the obvious qualifications (Richardson), brilliant oratory (Obama, Edwards), and passionate idealism (Edwards, Kucinich) of many of our candidates for President, none of the major contenders seems to be presenting that irresistible mix of rhetoric and risk-taking, that fanatical devotion to truth and right and justice and the ability to set the public on fire with it.  Ironically, the only candidate who both speaks passionately about his ideals and genuinely does not care whether he wins or loses is bona fide Crazy Old Man Mike Gravel.  As an aside, I would say that one other candidate possesses the first attribute — Obama — and one possesses the second — Biden.

And this is what makes people like me, by now committed to support John Edwards, continue to hope that a true transformational leader will jump into the fray.  That leader — the only one left in position to make a real race — is Al Gore, a man who is no longer either a crouching candidate or a hidden (Vice) President.  Gore’s absence from politics has liberated him from the strictures the need to win places on nearly all officeholders, while unleashing the silken tongue he has always possessed.

But at the same time, we must wonder, as Gore himself undoubtedly does: would the pressures of office-seeking force Gore to shelve the wild, brilliant abandon he has displayed of late?  Would his silken tongue skulk back to its lockbox with a sigh?  Only one man — Gore himself — is in a position to answer these two all-important questions.  And if the answer to either is yes, then Gore should follow his gut instinct and leave the field, at least for this election, devoid of a truly transformational candidate.

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