Why good men do not become president

Ryan Young Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute
Font Size:

To hear President Barack Obama’s supporters tell it, his challenger in this year’s presidential contest, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, is an out-of-touch plutocrat mainly concerned with becoming president. According to Governor Romney’s supporters, the president is an out-of-touch elitist whose main concern is staying in the White House. They’re both right.

After all, what sane person would want a job that destroys your privacy, makes it impossible for you to go out on the street, subjects your family to intrusive media scrutiny, forces you to watch everything you say, and drives some people to want to take a shot at you? Apparently someone who feels that the power that comes with the office is worth the attendant indignities.

“Great men are almost always bad men,” Lord Acton famously said. “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” Indeed, good men rarely run for president. And when they do, they rarely win. An honest man stands no chance against a Lyndon Johnson or a Richard Nixon. Yes, one slips through the cracks now and then. We could use Grover Cleveland’s restraint in handling the economic crisis today. I have a particular fondness for Calvin Coolidge, who conspicuously lacked the pathological need for attention that characterizes most officeholders.

That neediness will be on full display during Wednesday’s presidential debate, which will pit two men against each other who share much passion and skill for campaigning — for navigating a self-selecting process biased toward the power-hungry. Becoming president requires years of campaigning and fundraising, handshaking, and deal-making — no one can possibly endure all that unless they thirst for power to their very core. Sane, honest people lack that thirst.

Campaigning for even minor office requires a candidate to prostrate himself before people he’s never met, and make grand promises he may — or may not — keep. He must build himself up while tearing down his opponent through vicious attacks. Imagine what that does to a candidate’s mind — especially one that starts to believe his own hype.

A successful candidate often must hide his true beliefs, assuming he has any, tailoring his message to match his constituents’ wishes.

And then there’s the media coverage — a spotlight so bright it burns. Harried reporters constantly scurrying about, spilling coffee on your shoe, never a moment to yourself on the campaign trail — those aren’t things that sane, reasonable people put up with. Not even if the reward for doing so is the White House.

Worse still is the toll campaigning takes on candidates’ families — long weeks of separation, unflattering exposes, and “gotcha” hit pieces.

More to the point, is it moral to seek power over other human beings in the first place? It might seem moral to Thrasymachus in Plato’s “Republic,” who proclaimed that, “justice is the advantage of the stronger,” but no sane parent would teach that to their child. Yet it is precisely the morality that one must follow to become president.

We like to think that a presidential candidate we support will turn out to be a modern-day Cincinnatus — a person who dutifully serves the republic and then retires to private life. Instead, we are more likely to get a new Thrasymachus, who will presume to control, order, hector, nettle, cajole, and harass the very people he just spent a year or more sucking up to — while they pay him for the privilege.

No matter the party, the tendency is for presidents to always fight for more control for the office they hold — over education, health care, safety regulation, the economy, and many more areas of life. The power grabs of one administration are rarely relinquished by its successors. If anything, they grab for more.

May we teach our children to aspire to better things than the presidency. Watching Wednesday’s debate could make a good first lesson.

Ryan Young is Fellow in Regulatory Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.