As someone who once daydreamed about becoming the first woman president, as the mother-in-law of three young women, and as the grandmother of a three year-old girl, I would like nothing better than to see a woman make history by stepping into the American presidency. But it has to be the right woman. And in my opinion, Hillary Clinton is just not right for this appointment with history.
I write this not because Hillary's reputation has been tarnished by Benghazi, or the email scandal, or by questionable foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. It's also not because of the ghosts of scandals past, whether Whitewater or the Lewinsky affair.
Hillary Clinton should not be president, I believe, because she has already had her fair share of political power.
True, it was not Hillary, but her husband Bill who occupied the Oval Office during his two terms as president. And while Hillary wielded some measure of authority from behind the scenes during her husband's administration, it was not enough to fulfill her considerable political talents, which only came to fruition in her later roles as U.S. Senator and then Secretary of State.
Still, having the Clintons back in the White House for a third time around goes against the spirit of the American democratic process that guards (or aims to, anyway) against too much power vested in any one person, party, or special interest.
Indeed how noble it would be, I think, if Hillary Clinton would follow in the footsteps of George Washington. During the Founders' era the quality of "disinterestedness"--devotion to service of one's country without thought of personal reward or recognition--was highly prized as an attribute of good character. Washington was keenly aware of how his behavior was in accord with this principle: at two critical junctures in his military and political career, America's first president set the gold standard for exemplifying the idea that democracy is best served when power is both shared and limited.
Twice, in fact, Washington stunned all of colonial America and Europe for his radical renunciation of executive authority. After leading the Colonies to victory over the British during the Revolutionary War, writes Gordon S. Wood in Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Great,* Washington shocked his loyal troops by surrendering his sword to Congress. His retirement from power, Wood writes, "had a profound effect everywhere in the Western world. It was extraordinary; a victorious general's surrendering his arms and returning to his farm was unprecedented in modern times."
For though it was widely believed that Washington could have become "king or dictator," Wood continues, "he wanted nothing of the kind . . . .everyone recognized his sincerity. It filled them with awe." Even King George III, writes Wood, was reputed to have predicted that if Washington retired and returned to his farm, "he will be the greatest man in the world." Even more importantly to the fledgling nation, as Jefferson pointed out, Washington's act prevented "a subversion of that liberty" the revolution had fought to establish.
Washington, of course, as all school children know, did return to political power as America's first president, the only president elected to office by a unanimous electoral vote. Physically imposing at six foot three inches, a quiet-spoken icon of the Revolutionary War, Washington assumed office with his characteristic modesty. He recognized that the American public had no desire for another king. But he also understood, Wood writes, that he had to satisfy the peoples' yearning for "patriarchal leadership."
It's difficult today to remember that the revolutionaries and Founders had little precedent on which to build the scaffolding of the republic they'd roughly imagined. Albeit with help from the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Monroe, and Franklin, et al, were largely making up this "unprecedented experiment" as they went about establishing a new nation separate from Great Britain. But European monarchies with their Kings and Queens and royal protocols and behaviors, points out Wood, had been the founders' only example of large-scale government. Inevitably, monarchical themes arose--pitting pro-strong-government Federalists against less-government-is best Republicans.
The new republic's first leader, for example, suggested Adams, a Federalist, should be titled "His Highness, or, if you will, His Most Benign Highness." Then there was "His Highness the President of the United States of America, and protector of their Liberties," reports Wood. It was left to Madison and the House of Representatives to come to their democratic senses; responsive to the criticism that had begun to arise, they affixed the simple title "Mr. President" to Washington--to his relief.
It was Washington's fate as America's first president to walk this fine line between embodying a strong enough leadership to hold the thirteen colonies together as one union, while enacting democratic principles that set parameters on government power. And indeed, after his first term in office, Washington announced, once again, that he would be retiring from public service. Prevailed upon by his revolutionary peers that the fragile young country needed the continuity of his leadership, he relented and ran and won a second term. But when at the end of his second term Washington was asked to run for a third term, he firmly declined.
As before, Washington's renunciation reverberated throughout the Western world. Rather than diminish his stature, his decision proved only to enhance his authority and standing. As historian Gary Wills put it, notes Wood, "Washington gained power from his readiness to give it up."
Would that Hillary Clinton could be guided by the principle of disinterestedness. It's too late now for her to step aside--the die has been cast and she will enter the race with the aim of being the first woman president of the United States. If she wins, I will celebrate (if a little half-heartedly) her achievement.
Still, in the run-up to choose a Democratic nominee, I can't help but wish that the American public would bear in mind that Hillary Clinton has already been accorded her fair portion of power on the American political stage. I wish they would reflect on Washington's legacy that upholding limits on executive power is fundamental to a democracy, and that it is more in keeping with our original principles to give another candidate--one who has not already been in the White House--his or her chance to serve the country.
Media, too, should refrain from touting a Hillary Clinton candidacy as "inevitable." Jeb Bush, I also think, should not enter the race: we do not need, as his own mother initially remarked, yet another, third Bush in the White House.
Because in the final analysis, America should not be in the business of establishing family monarchies. It should be in the business of building lasting democracies.
Pythia Peay writes about psychology and the American psyche.
*Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, by Gordon S. Wood, Penguin Press;2006.