Back in a 1979 interview with Roger Mudd, Democratic presidential contender Ted Kennedy flubbed what looked like a softball question: "Senator, why do you want to be president?" Kennedy's sputtering answer did real damage to his campaign.
Senators Obama and McCain gave marginally more coherent answers than Kennedy when Rick Warren asked the same question at Saturday's megachurch confab, but in an America with a saner perspective on the presidency, their answers would have been disqualifying as well.
Obama offered some touchy-feely Rawlsianism mixed with a call for bipartisanship:
You know, I remember what my mother used to tell me. I was talking to somebody a while back and I said the one time that she would get really angry with me is if she ever thought that I was being mean to somebody, or unfair to somebody. She said, imagine standing in their shoes. Imagine looking through their eyes. That basic idea of empathy, and that, I think, is what's made America special is that notion, that everybody has got a shot. If we see somebody down and out, if we see a kid who can't afford college, that we care for them, too.
And I want to be president because that's the America I believe in and I feel like that American dream is slipping away. I think we are at a critical juncture. Economically, I think we are at a critical juncture. Internationally, we've got to make some big decisions not just for us for the next generation and we keep on putting it off. And unfortunately, our politics is broken and Washington is so broken, that we can't bring together people of goodwill to solve these common problems. I think I have the ability to build bridges across partisan lines, racial, regional lines to get people to work on some common sense solutions to critical issues and I hope that I have the opportunity to do that.
Only the first sentence of McCain's answer is particularly cogent, but it reflects what Matt Welch has described as McCain's "exaltation of sacrifice over the private pursuit of happiness" :
I want to inspire a generation of Americans to serve a cause greater than their self-interest. I believe that America's best days are ahead of us, but I also believe that we face enormous challenges, both national security and domestic, as we have found out in the last few days in the case of Georgia....
America wants hope. America wants optimism. America wants us to sit down together. I have a record of reaching across the aisle and working with the other party, and I want to do that, and I believe, as I said, that Americans feel it is time for us to put our country first.
And we may disagree on a specific issue... but I want every American to know that when I go to Gee's Bend, Alabama, and meet the African-American women there who are so wonderful and lovely, an experience I'll never forget, and when I go to places where I know they probably won't vote for me, I know that my job is to tell them that I'll be the president of every American and I'll always put my country first.
In the original constitutional scheme, the president wasn't supposed to be the Empath-in-Chief or a national life coach-cum-self-help guru, charged with getting us off our duffs and uniting us all behind a higher calling. He was there to faithfully execute the laws, defend the country from foreign attack, and check Congress with the veto power whenever it exceeded its constitutional bounds. The formless, boundless vision of presidential responsibility revealed in Obama and McCain's answers shows us how dangerously far we've travelled from that modest, unromantic conception of the president's role. I could recommend a book that might set them straight.