In recent weeks, I have commented—negatively—on our leaders, and have examined the flawed process whereby candidates are vetted, and eventually entered into races. I did receive some e-mail asking me to look at the problem from another angle, namely, why talented people of high integrity seldom run for office.
One immediate answer is that they are not interested, and would rather continue doing whatever it is they are doing. In some cases, this might be mostly selfish, as devotion to public service would take them away from accumulating more wealth, and building the fortune. Indeed, that might be why it is usually the flawed heirs (Kennedy brothers, Rockefeller descendants, and the Bushes) that aspire to public office.
But then, there are also high achievers in their own right who can be persuaded to run—at least in theory—but simply don’t want to lower themselves to endure the campaign process. In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the title character is an incredibly brave and successful military leader, who, upon returning to Rome, is persuaded by his mother to run for consul.
The Roman Senate supports him, but, in keeping with tradition, he must also ask the people. At first, he considers that his service to Rome is reason enough for the peoples’ support:
What must I say?
‘I Pray, sir’–Plague upon’t! I cannot bring
My tongue to such a pace:–‘Look, sir, my wounds!
I got them in my country’s service, when
Some certain of your brethren roar’d and ran
From the noise of our own drums.’
Reluctantly, he does go through with the ritual, even if he is not exactly polite to the commoners. His curt tone is exploited by his enemies, who whip up opposition to him, and finally Coriolanus has had enough of this egalitarian exercise:
Thus we debase
The nature of our seats and make the rabble
Call our cares fears; which will in time
Break ope the locks o’ the senate and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles.
For his bad attitude, Coriolanus is banished, but then conspires with the very enemy power (the Volscians) he has just defeated, to conquer Rome. As the tale ends, he is dissuaded in this action by his mother, but this change of heart causes his death at the hands of his would-be Volscian allies.
No doubt, there are contemporary and historical American figures who would have been pleased to become president as long as they needn’t campaign, but the only one who actually achieved this was George Washington.
Perhaps the closest we can come to a Coriolanus story in American history would be Andrew Jackson. Jackson was surely a gigantic hero of the War of 1812, and many noted that he would be an excellent candidate for the presidency, even if he was less than enthusiastic about the idea. Unlike Coriolanus, he was not an elitist, and unlike Coriolanus, he did attain higher office. But there was still tragedy.
His backers got the legislature of his home state of Tennessee to appoint him to the US Senate (popular election of senators did not come until 1913 with the 17th Amendment), and this would be a springboard to the presidential election of 1824. Jackson got the most electoral votes (and led in the popular vote, as well) but since of the four candidates none had a majority, the election was decided in the House, and went to John Quincy Adams. Since one of the other candidates, House Speaker Henry Clay (who also had the fewest electoral votes) threw his support to Adams, the election was decided on the first ballot.
However, Adams appointed Clay secretary of state, and it certainly looked like a “corrupt bargain” as it was referred to then, had been struck. This was more than enough to convince Jackson to give it one more try.
In 1828, Jackson soundly defeated Adams by an electoral vote of 178 to 83, in an especially rancorous campaign. Among other things, Jackson and his wife Rachel were accused of being adulterers, since it had come out that she was not legally divorced from her first husband at the time that she and Jackson had wed. Even though their marriage was a long one, and this mistake was immediately rectified (in 1794), the damage had been done.
Sadly, Jackson’s time of personal triumph came with great sadness as his wife died of a heart attack shortly after the election on December 22, 1828. Most historians agree that the assaults on this shy and religious woman hastened her death. Jackson blamed the Adams campaign:
“May God Almighty forgive her murderers as I know she forgave them. I never can.”
Her tombstone was inscribed:
“A being so gentle and yet so virtuous, slander might wound, but could not dishonor.”
Jackson was reelected easily, and is revered to this day as the man who created the modern presidency. Almost single-handedly, he convinced the doubters—and there were many before he completed his term—of the practicality, wisdom, and morality of democracy.
One wonders if our system could ever produce another like him.