June 20, 2013
Posted on Apr 11, 2006
by Robert Scheer
Playing president is not a book title selected casually, but a distilled opinion gleaned over forty years of journalism, covering our most important democratic exercise. After decades spent interviewing dozens of leading presidential candidates, including those who ended up in the highest office, I came to the conclusion that the process endured in obtaining electoral power tends to be the controlling influence on the candidate’s behavior once in office.
As sailors like to say, the journey is the destination, and for politicians with presidential aspirations, the experience of running for one office after another until they obtain the final prize informs as well as deforms their conduct. The problem is that in our system, as opposed to a parliamentary one, the presidential candidate’s performance is a solo act. The basic test is not that of a leader emerging from a pack made up of peers; instead, it revolves around a performer and a largely untutored electorate that is his jury and his audience.
Whereas a parliamentary leader is pushed by the process of selection to grow in ways that are positive to governance, with policy substance stressed over rhetorical style, in the American presidential system, the electoral process stupefies rather than educates, undermining—indeed, assaulting—the capacity of the politician to consider public policy in ways that are truly thoughtful. In the uniquely grueling and essentially mindless process of our system, serious issues become little more than grist for the pollsters’ mills, and substantive alternatives are reduced to slogans to be bandied about for electoral convenience and television sound-bite advertising.
All of the leading presidential candidates that I have interviewed, from Democratic Senator Gary Hart of Colorado to Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, have been honorable individuals who sacrificed a great deal in their attempts to succeed at what is an extremely challenging ordeal. Whether it was John Anderson, the Republican Congressman-turned-Independent, or civil rights activist Jessie Jackson turned perennial Democratic Party candidate, these men for the most part struck me as basically well-intentioned in their eagerness to serve the nation. The fundamental hazards are in the process itself: that numbing effect of a modern mass media-observed campaign that requires such an incredible high-wire act—balancing fundraising with integrity, superficial sloganeering with profound commitment, and homogenizing the entire unwieldy package into a marketable commodity—that in the end, the candidate is transformed into a caricature who has difficulty remembering from whence he came.
That, of course, is the opposite of what the founders of the American system had in mind when they rooted our representative democracy in accountability, with even the smallest local village subject to the scrutiny of a media that was everyman, as personified by the proprietor of the penny press and the town crier.
Thomas Jefferson extolled the central importance of the media, declaring, “I would rather have free press and no government, than a government and no free press.” Journalists were by no means presumed virtuous; they were often considered vile, intemperate, and cursory in their observations. Yet what defined the media in the infancy of the nation was variety, made possible by a press that thrived in conditions of undercapitalization. Famed media critic A.J. Liebling once wrote, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” and in the time of Jefferson, that group included much of the electorate.
Today, the opposite is obviously the case, with media ownership enormously costly and concentrated in a very few centers of capital. Perhaps the Internet will change that; already there are signs that the blogosphere, when it is not merely mischievous noise, is revitalizing the democratic process. After all, money is often less important than spunk as the key ingredient to the success of a website. But the contrary tendency in the period of time during which I interviewed the presidential candidates in this book was increasingly toward larger and more suffocating media conglomeration. For this reason, there is something anachronistic about the interviews I conducted, as they were produced for print outlets even while the electronic media was beginning to fully assert its dominance. It is now extremely rare for a print journalist, accompanied only by pen and paper and a tape recorder, to be granted adequate time to assess a candidate’s ability to reflect on the issues of the day.
In the introductions to each of the following sections, I attempt to provide some insight into how my exchanges with the men who served as President came to take place, and what was learned in the process. In the last section on President George W. Bush, I struggle to come to grips with the one recent President who was never subjected to such a test, from me or anyone else. While I did spend some time around him and the rest of the Bush family entourage while reporting on his father’s campaigns, he is the one President here who I never interviewed on the public record. No matter, George W. Bush is, for better or worse, the first truly electronically projected President.
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