Above all, running for the office of President of the United States in today's climate requires a massive ego, a "skin" impervious to criticism, a quick response tongue, a willingness to be intellectually stripped down to total transparency in today's sliced and diced universe of information, and a fearless and courageous inner core. A partial affliction of madness helps.
Watching the Republican candidates submit themselves to the withering and excruciating debate process seems an exercise in self-flagellation. Indeed, it is easy to offer an unkind assessment of these people willing to take the plunge and expose themselves to this process, but then, nobody is twisting their arm and they should know what to expect.
Considering all the details of the process, the fund raising, the debates and press conferences, the travel, the debilitating effect on their energy and health, the requirement of absorbing information on foreign and domestic policy where the slightest slipup of memory becomes instant evidence of incompetence or worse, the candidates are easy targets for ridicule and satire, some deserved, some mean-minded.
Worse, the life history of the candidates, the real skinny on their peccadilloes, their mistakes, their family backgrounds, their sexual conduct, their youthful improprieties, their school marks, their lifetime psychological profiles and most of their inner secrets are all subjected to public scrutiny. Nothing can be hidden in our contemporary technologically drenched culture. Any blemish is sure to be revealed.
It is as if someone who wants to run for president must make up his or her mind at the very dawn of his or her ambition and live a life that can withstand the transparency and revelations of intensive investigative zeal, not only by opponents but by an increasingly sadistic media and anyone else with a computer at hand.
Before the Internet, we knew only the obvious and background checks were limited to what could be known through a determined media investigation or perhaps through the all-knowing eye of J. Edgar Hoover's intelligence machine, the details of which were often deliberately withheld. Considering Hoover's vast power, one can speculate that he knew everything about everybody who participated in the political system during his reign. One wonders if such a situation continues to exist under the present leadership.
Of course, no one can escape from the revelations of "tell all" published memoirs of various eyewitness participants that reveal all the juicy details of the sexual improprieties and other questionable activities of our lawmakers and power elite. Often, they occur long after the death of the principal but sometimes they arrive in the midst of an active career and can be devastating to that hapless person's ambitions.
Ironically, in the past, certain aspects of behavior in the personal history of politicians were off limits for public revelation by a kind of gentlemen's agreement with the press. Sexual activity in all its forms, straight, gay, adulterous, or whatever was considered a private matter unless, as Wilbur Mills, the former head of the House Ways and Means Committee found out, it became blatant and unavoidably an issue for public consumption.
Everyone in the know knew of these sexual peccadilloes of the political class. Nothing was really secret in the political and media community, and it was rare that such a bond of silence was broken. John Kennedy, for example, a serial adulterer, managed his affairs via a network of secret keepers. He was, of course, not the only president with an overactive libido who stepped over that line, but then I suppose such information is under perpetual seal by the Secret Service.
Only Bill Clinton, who had apparently frequently exercised the venery out of wedlock during his time as Governor of Arkansas, did not get the message of the break in the old custom, fell victim to his propensity, and was ultimately impeached, although he has now been resurrected and forgiven by an adoring public and his wife and daughter.
Sex was not the only thing that was kept hidden by gentlemen's agreement. Alcohol abuse was overlooked and certain members of congress often reeled onto the floor to vote. Health and disablement, too, was an issue very carefully manipulated.
Having lived through all three terms of FDR and part of his fourth, I can honestly admit that I was unaware of the extent of his disability and how many of us knew that President Kennedy suffered from Addison's disease. Historians have recorded the fact that Mrs. Woodrow Wilson ran the White House while her husband was incapacitated by a stroke.
As for money matters, except for egregious crimes, the use of money for campaign purposes was also swept under the rug. The Watergate scandals were supposed to put that one to rest but the old adage "money talks" continues to haunt and corrupt the political process. Everyone knows that large contributions, a euphemism for a form of bribery, offer substantial political rewards, as any lobbyist knows and expects. There is no free lunch in Washington. Most get what they pay for.
Oddly, the use of debates to weed out the unworthy in primary campaigns is now the operative norm for exposing candidates and their views to wide audiences. Unfortunately, it does become an opportunity for self-aggrandizement and public exposure for people clearly unqualified for the job. That comes with the territory.
Inevitably, it will sort itself out and party choices will emerge to expose themselves to one-on-one debates where participants will verbally duke it out.
We experience political campaigns as entertainment and debates have become something of a reality show. Unfortunately, the stakes are high, since the person who wins the grand prize of the presidency wields great power over our lives. It is certainly true that few have the guts and courage to enter the fray, which has become little more than a kind of shooting gallery for a massive contingent of well-armed public snipers.
Nevertheless, I marvel at the mad courage of these self-appointed candidates. They perpetuate the embedded myth that any American born in this country who meets the age qualifications can become President of the United States. History, recent and past, tells us that as a people, we have not always been wise in our choices but we have blundered along and some of those who seemed the least qualified by background and education turned out to have been our greatest leaders, while those who had the best resumes and the most talent for making speeches turned out to be duds.
Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections published in numerous languages. Films adapted from his books include 'The War of the Roses,'Random Hearts' and the PBS trilogy 'The Sunset Gang'. He is a pioneer in digital publishing. For more information visit Warren's website at www.warrenadler.com.
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