On The Incentives Of Those Who Govern: A Historical Look

The below appeared on Forbes.com, where Nathan Raab writes a blog called "Historically Speaking."

On The Incentives Of Those Who Govern: A Historical Look

“I’m always skeptical of this idea that someone is called upon [to run for President]. They actually have to decide and go after it and then when they go after it with gusto and energy, then the national, the grass roots movements follow that.”

– Dan Senor, recently a Foreign Policy Advisor to Candidate Mitt Romney, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Wednesday, February 21.

This has not always been the case.  George Washington, a famously reluctant President, set the example.  With the  grueling but ultimately successful Revolutionary War behind him, the country turned to its hero to lead a fractious convention to create the U.S. Constitution.  He was again pulled out of his peaceful retirement at Mount Vernon to lead the new nation as its first president.  He neither campaigned for the position nor actively welcomed it.  “I cannot describe the painful emotions which I felt in being called upon to determine whether I would accept or refuse the Presidency of the United States,” he said in a speech in 1789. In this way, President Washington cemented the image of what a President ought to be: slow to give up retirement, devoted to the public service, called with unease to a greater task, never appearing hungry for the job.

This is not the only case of a president showing hesitancy to be a candidate. A nation on the brink of Civil War turned to Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War, who was called to serve by those hopeful of limiting the expansion of the institution of slavery.  When he first heard that his name was being circulated as a potential Whig Party nominee, he said, “Such an idea never entered my head, nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person.” He postponed Civil War but could not stop it.

George Washington’s precedent carried for generations. The nation’s highest office, a symbol of public service, was above the ambitions of one man. Humility was requisite.  The candidate was above the fray.  Those desiring the Presidency dare not say so too loudly.  So while the presidential hopeful might work silently behind the scenes, supporters rallied on his behalf. Abraham Lincoln’s campaigning, for instance, consisted in large part of writing confidential letters from Springfield, like the one illustrated here.  Others gave his stump speeches for him, leaving him free to appear presidential.

Letter of Abraham Lincoln seeking campaign intelligence from his home, now in a significant private collection

There is no greater example of Washington’s legacy than the skewering of the man who bucked it. In the great Front Porch Campaign of 1896, William Jennings Bryan engaged in the first modern presidential campaign, complete with modern campaign tactics, traveling around the country, giving over 600 speeches, on the clear premise that he was pursuing the position. His opponent, William McKinley, used Bryan’s campaign tactics against him.  Rather than appear to be soliciting votes, he brought people in from around the country to his actual front porch and gave speeches from there. The symbolism was the legacy of George Washington: the reluctant President being called from his home to lead a nation.  McKinley of course won.

Let’s not stop there.  Washington’s influence did not end with William McKinley.  We can move well into the 20th century and still find the reluctant President, called to serve: Dwight Eisenhower. I spoke with his granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, whose book, Mrs. Ike, covers this and whose perspective is compelling. She spoke to me of the letters her grandfather wrote to her grandmother longing for retirement, how he dreamed of returning to his family and putting aside a lifetime of public service. But this was not to be.

“Draft Eisenhower” movements began to appear in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.  Although Ike did not permit any semblance of partisanship, others worked to persuade him.   It was Henry Cabot Lodge who forced the issue by entering Eisenhower’s name in the New Hampshire primary. Ike did not actively participate, beyond a simple statement that he would accept if offered the nomination.  In February of 1952, Ike received news that the people were clamoring for a President Eisenhower.  A rally at Madison Square Garden, capacity of 16,000, was packed with 25,000 raucous supporters.  A month later, without having actively campaigned, he won the New Hampshire Primary.  The next day he formally announced his candidacy, having been called to serve.

Could General Eisenhower have become President Eisenhower today?  How would he have viewed the political scene today?  This is Susan Eisenhower’s response: “He would find today’s political environment even more challenging than what he faced in the 1950s. That’s because the media and electronic technology have changed the character of campaigns, and the incentives of those who govern.”

It is a shame but 2016 might prove Dan Senor right.

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