Commentary

Blind Ambition Is Not a Presidential Job Qualification

Are you depressed about the shape of the 2012 presidential race? Maybe you’re not depressed enough.

Nobody who wants the presidency too badly ought to be trusted with it. George Washington struck the right note in his first inaugural: “No event could have filled me with greater anxieties” than learning of his election.

Yet, as the powers of the presidency have grown far beyond what Washington could have imagined, the selection process has changed in ways that make it vanishingly unlikely that a latter-day Washington will seek the job.

Unfortunately, the modern presidential campaign calls forth characters with delusions of grandeur, a flair for dissembling, and a bottomless hunger for higher office.

Nobody who wants the presidency too badly ought to be trusted with it.”

Barack Obama’s audacious ambition is by now well-known. “He’s always wanted to be president,” one of Obama’s oldest friends, presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, has admitted.

In a November 2007 interview, then-candidate Obama commented, “If you don’t have enough self-awareness to see the element of megalomania involved in thinking you should be leader of the free world, then you probably shouldn’t be president.”

So, only “self-aware” megalomaniacs should get nuclear weapons — that’s one way of looking at it. Judging by the 2012 field, it may be the best we can do.

In a famous 1979 television interview, Democratic presidential contender Ted Kennedy flubbed a softball question: “Why do you want to be president?” Kennedy’s sputtering answer damaged his campaign.

Despite extraordinary efforts in two campaigns — spending millions of dollars of his own money, it’s not obvious that Mitt Romney has a clear answer to that question, either. Mitt’s “main cause appeared to be himself,” a longtime Republican observer of the Massachusetts governor told the authors of “The Real Romney.”

“Commander-in-chief of this country,” is how former Sen. Rick Santorum describes the job he’s applying for — and he sees the CINC’s portfolio as broad enough to include hectoring Americans about their sex lives: “The dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea… these are important public policy issues.”

Clearly, anyone who wants the job badly enough to campaign as exhaustingly as Santorum has — living out of a suitcase on the long march through all 99 Iowa counties — doesn’t simply want to take care that the laws are faithfully executed and otherwise mind his own business.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the modern process calls forth people with inordinate ambition and grandiose visions, like Newt Gingrich, who has bragged that “I first talked about [saving civilization] in August of 1958.”

As the Atlantic’s James Fallows put it recently, “an abnormal-psych study could be written on every president of the modern era except the one who never ran for national office, Gerald R. Ford.” With apologies to Groucho Marx, anybody who wants to belong to this club shouldn’t be allowed to be a member.

In his terrific book “See How They Ran,” historian Gil Troy writes that “Originally, presidential candidates were supposed to ‘stand’ for election, not ‘run.’ They did not make speeches. They did not shake hands. Republican detachment from the political arena was good and dignified; actively seeking office and soliciting votes was humiliating and bad.”

The Jeffersonian ideal of the “mute tribune” was imperfectly observed, Troy notes, but it was something to aspire to, and candidates who violated it were occasionally punished at the polls.

Amid the tumult of the 2012 race, it’s hard to imagine returning to the era of the “front porch campaign,” when candidates were hardly seen and rarely heard.

But we ought to strive to make the office less powerful, and thus, a less attractive prize for those who hunger for power.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.