No Way To Pick A President [NOOK Book]

Overview



A premier political reporter considers our presidential politics and how to improve them-an essential book as campaign 2000 gets under way.

Jules Witcover, who has covered every presidential election since 1952, here combines unparalleled anecdotal knowledge about Presidential politics with scintillating wisdom about just what's wrong with those politics. He shows us, in memorable and dramatic detail, how over the years an influx of ...
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No Way To Pick A President

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Overview



A premier political reporter considers our presidential politics and how to improve them-an essential book as campaign 2000 gets under way.

Jules Witcover, who has covered every presidential election since 1952, here combines unparalleled anecdotal knowledge about Presidential politics with scintillating wisdom about just what's wrong with those politics. He shows us, in memorable and dramatic detail, how over the years an influx of professional mercenaries-with no party loyalties and virtually no political principles-has corrupted American public life and formed a new technocracy that dominates every phase of electoral politics. Along with this, television has changed politics dramatically, even destructively, which only discourages voter participation and puts off some of our most promising candidates.
In this lively, story-filled book, Witcover examines the many ways in which politicians have condoned or encouraged these developments, and how they have responded to the new demands of a media-driven, money-conscious age. He assesses the effect of campaign funds both "soft" and "hard," and of a press corps that practices invasive, "gotcha" journalism in its own quest for greater celebrity and financial reward. He concludes with sage and experienced recommendations on how to improve our Presidential politics-beginning even this year!-and revive public interest and confidence in American democracy.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429922081
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/1/2011
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • File size: 371 KB

Meet the Author



Jules Witcover, a native of New Jersey, has been a national news reporter based in the capital since 1954, and, since 1981, a syndicated columnist for the Baltimore Sun. The author of ten books, he lives in Washington, D.C.
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Read an Excerpt


No Way To Pick A President
1ME FOR PRESIDENTEvery American mother likes to think that her son (or, nowadays, her daughter) can become president. Although it isn't likely to happen, the long odds don't prevent a fair number of Americans who have attained the constitutional age of thirty-five from trying. Many don't seem to have much else in the way of qualifications for the job, but that doesn't stop them.It's said that when John F. Kennedy first thought about seeking the presidency, he looked around the United States Senate, saw a number of his colleagues who were being mentioned as prospective candidates, and asked himself: Why not me? Kennedy at that time was forty-two years old and had served six years in the House of Representatives and seven in the Senate. Many others who have reached for the White House have had much less experience to recommend them, but if they're old enough, are native-born, and have resided in the United States for fourteen years, as the Constitution also stipulates, nothing but good sense prevents them from reaching for politics' shiniest brass ring.Long service to one's political party does remain important, however, particularly in the Republican Party. In recent years, a sort of pecking order by longevity has been established, with only occasional intrusions by candidates with sufficient celebrity to breach that order. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, brushed aside the party stalwart Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio in 1952, and Ronald Reagan barged in on patient GOP foot soldiers George Bush and Robert Dole in 1980. In between, party regulars who had "earned" the nomination--Richard Nixon in 1960, 1968, and 1972,Barry Goldwater in 1964, the short-time incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976, Bush in 1988 and 1992, and Dole in 1996--all were anointed as toilers in the party vineyards. Dole, forced to wait in the wings by Reagan, and then by his vice president, Bush, campaigned in 1996 on the argument that it was "my turn.""It's always seemed to me," says Dole, "you should have some party experience, you should have done some legwork in the party. I don't say you earn the spot; I mean, it's never yours. But I think it's just the way it ought to work. If I want to go out and run as a Republican, I should be able to go out and tell the people in Iowa and New Hampshire whoever I've been able to deal with over the years. If I wake up some morning and say I want to be president, having done nothing in the party, but I've got a lot of money in the bank or whatever [Steve Forbes, please note], there's something missing there, the way I look at it. You've got to have a feel for the people you represent. You get that through experience and hard work, and defeat. In my case, I started off as a young Republican district chairman, way, way, way back. That's when you had to work your way up in the party. Now you just need sort of celebrity status or the money. Once you're sort of established, then you start doing things for the party."On the other hand, Dole says, "I was considered by some too much of an insider, I had too much experience." Some, he recalls, "said he's been there so long, he has no ideas, he's tired. I didn't feel that way, but some people had that view: that it's good to get this fresh face, somebody who just pops out of the sky."The imposing task that running for and winning the presidency has become, however, has discouraged many distinguished Americans from making the try. So has the knowledge that they will run in a glass fishbowl, their every word and action exposed to public scrutiny. At the same time, some of the most improbable political figures have sought the office, and a few--like an obscure peanut farmer and former one-term governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter--have won it, encouraging others to emulate their boldness.There was a time when the most prominent political leaders did step forward to seek the presidency, or were pushed to the fore by their peers in the famous smoke-filled rooms where party nominations were negotiated. These peers were well equipped to assess the prospective candidates on two critical aspects: their qualifications for the presidency and their prospects for electionto the office. Theoretically, the chances of an untested candidate seizing the prize were minimized by the gauntlet of party elders the nominee had to run. On other occasions, the necessity of multiple convention ballots before a nominee could be agreed upon inevitably led to delegation horse trading by state and big-city party leaders, producing eventual nominees who, while prominent at the time, proved to be eminently forgettable. Typical was James A. Garfield in 1880, a former Union general and Ohio congressman, chosen to be the Republican nominee on the thirty-sixth ballot to break a deadlock between James G. Blaine of Maine and John Sherman of Ohio.Garfield's claim on history was his assassination in his first months in office and the elevation to the presidency of an even greater obscurity, Vice President Chester A. Arthur, a former Collector of the New York Custom House. Arthur had been tapped as Garfield's running mate as a payoff to New York Republican bosses. The Garfield-Arthur ticket was a rebuke to the notion that the smoke-filled room was a reliable if undemocratic vehicle for producing effective national leadership.So was the nomination forty years later of Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio by the Republicans in the most famous smoke-filled-room exercise. After four inconclusive ballots, a group of fellow senators called Harding into a hotel suite and questioned him into the wee hours before determining he was sufficiently inoffensive, and anointing him. Their attempt to put another Senate colleague on the ticket, however, was rejected by the convention delegates. Instead, they nominated the benign governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, with fateful result when Harding, like Garfield, died in office, only seventeen months after taking the presidential oath.By this time, the power of the cigar-puffing party bosses to handpick nominees was being diminished by the development of presidential primaries to select convention delegates. By 1916, twenty-six states had adopted primary laws as part of the Progressive reform movement. That trend flagged during and between the two world wars, but it resumed with a vengeance in the 1970s, again reducing the power and influence of party kingmakers. The nowdominant primary process in effect issued an open invitation to anyone with the ambition and, in the absence of strong qualifications, the chutzpah to run.The would-be presidents who have tried and failed rival in their near-anonymity and forgettableness our elected vice presidents. Who cannot but remember Larry Agran, John Ashbrook, Roger Branigin, Ned Coll, Phil Crane,Lar Daly, Ben Fernandez, Lenora Fulani, Milton Shapp, Morrie Taylor, and Sam Yorty? Such long shots are often asked whether they are not really running for the vice presidency. Shapp, a nondescript governor of Pennsylvania who had won some local acclaim for settling a massive truckers' strike, was such a nonbelievable presidential prospect in 1976 that he was asked at a press conference in Washington whether he was "really running for Secretary of Transportation"!In late 1979, a Republican senator from South Dakota named Larry Pressler, widely considered one of the Senate's and his party's lightest lightweights, threw his hat in the ring. When in only three months the folly of his initiative struck him as it had everybody else, he pulled out. But senators, as members of an exclusive club of one hundred, often consider themselves to be in the prime breeding ground for presidents, although only two, Harding in 1920 and Kennedy in 1960, were directly elected to the Oval Office from the Senate in the twentieth century. The latest example of presidential pipedreaming is Republican senator Robert Smith of New Hampshire, a vacuous nonentity who in 1998 indicated his intention to seek his party's nomination, hoping to use his state's first-in-the-nation primary to jump-start a national campaign. By mid-1999, his dismal progress persuaded him to quit the GOP and consider switching his doomed candidacy to an obscure third party.Before World War I, when the United States first emerged as a world power, being governor of a state was considered the best place to prepare for the presidency. That job's administrative responsibilities made it seem like a good training ground for running the country, and much political power rested in the governorships. But as the foreign-policy responsibility of the presidency greatly enlarged, and as the election of delegates to the major parties' nominating conventions became more democratic, other officeholders and men prominent in other fields were able to project themselves into presidential contention and garner the delegates required to capture the nominations.The mortality rate of presidents in the twentieth century eventually made it clear that a job once shunned as a dead end, the vice presidency, was in fact the best stepping-stone to the Oval Office. The deaths of four presidents--William McKinley, Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Kennedy--elevated Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson;and the resignation of Richard Nixon put Gerald Ford, the nation's first unelected vice president under the Twenty-fifth Amendment, into the White House.While the presidency began as an exalted position to be occupied by exalted men--George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe--it also in time fell prey to unimpressive and forgettable figures as well--William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan--before Abraham Lincoln strode onstage. Thereafter, another nine quadrennial elections passed before another giant appeared--Theodore Roosevelt, himself elevated from the vice presidency. And in the century to follow, only a handful--Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and, in some quarters at least, Ronald Reagan--were regarded as superior.Although some romantics like to suggest that the office seeks the man, that has seldom been true, with only a few notable exceptions--Washington, Franklin Roosevelt after his first term, and Eisenhower. Most presidential hopefuls, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, have had to go out and get the presidency if they wanted it. Even Eisenhower, sought by both parties in 1948 but unwilling, four years later at the Republican convention seized the party's nomination over Taft only after a stiff fight over contested credentials. The closest thing to a genuine draft in the Democratic Party in the last half century came in 1952, after Governor Adlai E. Stevenson II of Illinois had declined to seek the nomination, saying he preferred a second term in Springfield. Upon Truman's announcement that he would not run again, eleven hopefuls and favorite sons, led by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, joined the fray, but Stevenson was not among them. Truman himself urged Stevenson to run and a group of Illinoisans established a draft committee. Despite repeated statements declaring his unfitness for the presidency and unwillingness to seek it, by convention time the Stevenson draft had attracted key party leaders like Mayor David Lawrence of Pittsburgh. Stevenson was nominated on the third ballot but was snowed under by Eisenhower in November.The route most candidates have been obliged to travel, however, is a torturous one. It requires them to spend a year or more before the election campaign actually starts building name recognition and raising money. They mustspend month after month away from home and family, sleeping in nondescript motels and hotels, even on occasion on a supporter's living-room couch, as Mayor John Lindsay of New York did in 1972.They must submit themselves to the company of rich fools and their harebrained ideas for making the country better or themselves richer, in exchange for campaign contributions. They must associate with local and state party hacks, many of them unsavory characters, who dangle support under their noses in return for a promised job or a seat at the decision-making table. They must attend crack-of-dawn country breakfasts where they are stuffed with huge stacks of pancakes, mountains of greasy eggs and bacon, and rivers of warmed-over coffee before embarking on another eighteen-hour day of gladhanding. Then there are dreary Kiwanis and Optimist Club lunches with local insurance salesmen and undertakers and their sappy rituals. (MC: "We're honored today by the presence of a good friend from Washington, D.C.--Jack Kemp!" All: "Hi, Jack!") And each night there is the interminable, barely edible cold chicken dinner, shaking hundreds or even thousands more hands at a reception in the local VFW hall, followed by three hours of speeches by locals running for sheriff or county supervisor. And the candidates must endure all this with frozen smiles that they must somehow fashion so as to seem genuine.Many would-be presidents do all this while holding down a full-time job as a governor or in Congress, stealing away hours each day begging for money on the telephone or hours each night on quick plane trips halfway across the country and back. Others who do not have a full-time job make one of campaigning for president. An example is Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee and Secretary of Education in the Bush administration, who spent two years seeking the Republican presidential nomination for 1996 and, having failed, started up again on a second bid almost immediately after the election. His best showings in a competitive primary or caucus in 1996 were third place in Iowa and New Hampshire, which he obviously deemed sufficient encouragement to start the trek all over again. As far as could be perceived with the naked eye, the groundswell for another Lamar Alexander presidential campaign essentially began and ended in his own head, but that is all it takes under the existing system of candidate self-selection.For every individual who attains his party's nomination, let alone thepresidency, there are dozens like Alexander who make the same debilitating and dehumanizing commitment and come up empty. And not only once, but several times. It used to be that when a presidential aspirant ran, lost badly and tried again, he was regarded as a screwball. Exhibit A was former Minnesota governor and Eisenhower cabinet member Harold Stassen, the classic hopeless candidate for the presidency more than half a dozen times. Now there is a certain method in the madness."Given the nature of the primary process," says the pollster and campaign strategist Robert Teeter, "you have to spend a lot time running for president--two or four or maybe ten years. And who's to say that's bad? The process tends to surface people who have been around for a long time. Certain people are seen as acceptable; you may not vote for them but they don't scare you to death because they've been around for three or four cycles--Hubert Humphrey, Ed Muskie, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp--and have gone through press scrutiny, and the public has gotten used to them. Those candidates who come out of nowhere, like [Governor Michael] Dukakis [of Massachusetts], are not successful."But persevering is not for everybody, even ambitious politicians like Walter Mondale in the 1976 cycle. After more than a year of actively exploring a presidential candidacy, he suddenly announced in late 1974 that he was abandoning his quest because he was no longer "willing to go through fire" for the Democratic nomination. He was weary, he said, of "sleeping in Holiday Inns." But presidential ambition, once experienced, does not die easily. Less than two years later, when Jimmy Carter, the presidential nominee, was shopping around for a running mate, Mondale made himself available. Referring to his 1974 complaint, he now observed: "What I said at the time was that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in Holiday Inns. But I've checked and found they've all been redecorated. They're marvelous places to stay, and I've thought it over and that's where I'd like to be."After a year or more of chasing money and supporters, the candidate must go delegate hunting. From February through June in each presidential-election year, voters in state primaries and caucuses choose the delegates they wish to represent them at one of the two major-party conventions. The delegates are usually designated in these exercises according to the presidential candidate for whom they announce they will vote. The most politically activecitizens in each state must be courted assiduously by the candidate to win their support and then keep it. It is a long and costly obstacle course not recommended for the faint of heart, the deficient of wallet, or the sore of feet.In earlier days, when presidential nominees of the major parties were chosen by state party leaders in the legendary smoke-filled rooms of the national conventions, a certain peer review applied in making the selections from among men--exclusively men--prominent in party affairs, at the big-city, state, and national levels. The most likely candidates were large-state governors, prominent cabinet members, and, occasionally, members of Congress or military heroes. Rarely, an individual well established in a nongovernment field--a newspaper publisher, financier, or businessman--would be considered. Not only the perceived qualifications of the candidate to be an effective president but also the practical consideration of his chances of being elected were uppermost in the judgment of those making the choice. Factionalism and ideology also counted, with much wheeling and dealing among the parties' power brokers.In these circumstances, the chances of a little-known candidate breaking through with little establishment backing were slim. But with much greater popular participation in the process, given the proliferation of direct primaries and party caucuses, it has become closer to the truth (yet still far-fetched) that any mother's son could become president. Increasing numbers of them tried, qualifying for a ballot position in various states, sometimes attaining it, but never getting much beyond that initial stage. As the process became more open, however, more and more candidates entered into contention, not because fellow Americans demanded their services, but because they decided to offer themselves. Seeking the presidency for many was like climbing Mount Everest--because it was there.Others, to be sure, were propelled into the race because of their political success at another level, having demonstrated voter appeal or a superior record in administering a state, running a government department, or fighting a war. The vice presidency, once considered the equivalent of a gold watch awarded for faithful party service and a one-way ticket to political oblivion, came to be viewed differently: in seven of the last nine presidential elections, in fact, one or both of the major party presidential nominees had served as vice president.An irony in the competition for president is that because of the physicalhardships imposed and the costs of running not only in dollars but in lost privacy and in unwanted scrutiny of private and financial affairs, many of the most respected Americans choose not to run. As the bar is lowered, many less qualified or less known Americans see their own chances raised, at least in their own minds. In 1992, for example, the decision of the popular and respected governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, not to seek the Democratic nomination opened the door for a governor from Arkansas relatively unknown to most Americans named Bill Clinton. And in 1996, General Colin Powell's rejection of strong overtures from the Republican Party invited a large field of presidential contenders to challenge the old party warhorse Bob Dole.Self-selection in deciding who shall compete for the presidency has been underscored by the recent phenomenon of wealthy men--Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000--bankrolling their own campaigns. Rich men, certainly, have as much right to run for president as poor men. But their money enables them to bypass hurdles that presidential hopefuls without their financial resources must clear--becoming well known and posting achievements that can garner the popular and financial support required to make a respectable showing.Candidates with plenty of money or the ability to raise it therefore take the playing field with a tremendous advantage. In today's political combat, it is not enough to be a formidable candidate. One must be supported by a vast array of political talent and foot soldiers schooled in the refinements of seeking high office in the era of television, computer technology, and mass persuasion, and one must have or raise the millions of dollars it takes to finance their efforts.Considering the immense personal and financial sacrifices demanded of presidential candidates and their families, it is not so surprising that some of the nation's most prominent and promising public figures elect not to seek the presidency. Considering the same sacrifices, and how low public service generally has fallen in the esteem of the citizenry, it is also surprising how many do seek the job. With a true presidential draft a far-fetched prospect these days, and with the party mechanisms that once brought forth presidential nominees from the top echelons no longer functioning as of yore, the field of prospective presidents is left basically to self-selection.The man who picks himself and then goes about the business of gatheringan organization around him, like the manufacturer of a new product, sets out to find the right people to develop, shape, test, and market it, using state-of-the-art equipment if he can afford it, making up for lack of it with personal energy, ingenuity, charm, and luck if he can't. And because the needs are there for many specialized skills, the free-enterprise system brings forth other men and women who have them. Today they are known, often disparagingly, as "hired guns." They are at the heart of presidential politics, leading the parade, in Bill Clinton's favorite phrase, over the bridge to the twenty-first century.Copyright © 1999 by Jules Witcover
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