Anyone following the debate in the US media and political circles these days might form the impression that a supposedly golden age is about to end and that something absolutely disastrous is about to be unleashed. The elites are obviously in a bad mood.
The reason for this bad mood is the current presidential election which pits two deeply unpopular candidates, Hillary Clinton for Democrats and Donald Trump for Republicans, against each other in a fight that ignores the Marquis of Queensbury rule.
To make matters worse, the incumbent President, Barack Obama, has joined the melee by declaring Trump to be “not qualified for the presidency.” Since there are no legally established rules about qualification for the job, albeit beside technical ones such as being born in the US, it is not clear how Obama reached that conclusion.
If qualification requires some experience in government, then, in 2008, Obama, too, was hardly qualified. Even then, government experience is no guarantee for an effective presidency. Many among the 44 men who have served as US president so far had immense experience, including the vice presidency, but, obeying Murphy’s Law, ended up as failures at the top. One example is President John Tyler who served 1841-85. Another is Jimmy Carter who served from 1977 to 1981. In any case, it is the electorate that hires the president that must decide on who is qualified and who is not.
Trump is also attacked for his use of language which, to put it mildly, is far from polite, let alone recherché. But here, too, Trump can find illustrious predecessors among the 44 presidents. President Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) had risen to be a general but maintained a sergeant-major’s colorful language. President Theodor Roosevelt’s language, too, was far from rosewater romantic, especially when hitting his political rivals.
Trump’s soubriquet for Hilary Clinton is “the crooked Hillary”. This is fairly mild compared to “Van Ruin”, the soubriquet attached to President Martin van Buren by his opponents (1837-1841). The claim that Mrs. Clinton, who voted for the invasion of Iraq and then joined Obama’s fake “Chorus of Peace” is nothing but a weathervane also has precedents. William Howard Taft, President between 1909 and 1913, is quoted as having told the convention that nominated him: “Well, these are my principles. But if you don’t like them, I have others!”
Sandi Berners’ fans accuse Mrs. Clinton of skullduggery in winning the party’s nomination. But that, too, has numerous precedents in US presidential history. It was through a series of diabolical deals that John Quincey Adams propelled himself into the White House as the 6th president (1825-29).
I remember being shocked out of my rosy view of America in 2002 when then Senator Joe Biden, later to become Vice President, told a session at the World Economic Forum at Davos that American democracy was just a façade because George W Bush and not Al Gore had become president.
I have much sympathy for American friends today who feel they face a Hobson’s choice. Some American commentators, falling into the trap of nostalgia for a supposedly golden age, romanticize some of the past choices. But was the choice between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter truly exciting? Or did the choice between George Bush the father and Michael Dukakis the best offer in history?
Americans take pride in the assertion that “just anyone” can become their president. History, however, shows otherwise. Until recently you had to be somebody to become president. First you had to be a man.Next you had to have white skin and a European Christian background.
Of the 44 presidents, 17 had had military careers of varying lengths up to the rank of general. (That includes Carter who rose to be a lieutenant in the navy.) Of the remainder, 17 had been governors, often of big states. Also, 16 had been senators. (In some cases the man who rose to become president had more than one of those backgrounds.)
Family connections also mattered. Two sons of presidents, John Quincey Adams and George W Bush, rose to become president in their turn. A grandson, Benjamin Harrison, followed his grandfather William Henry Harrison, to become president. A nephew, Theodor Roosevelt, followed his uncle, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as president.
It also helped if you were rich, including through ownership of vast tracts of lands and, before the Abolition, a large numbers of slaves. Although a few presidents came from “log cabin” families, most noted among them President William McKinley who was one of the four US presidents to be assassinated, a majority came from upper middle-class families and enjoyed a high level of education which was until recently available to a small percentage of Americans.
Between 1968 and 2008 I covered or at least took a close interest in several US presidential elections and can tell you that in every case what mattered was the perceived character of the candidates, not their policies. One devious prank some journalist colleagues practiced was to quote to a member of the public who supported one candidate the policies of the opposite candidate and ask for an opinion. In almost every case the would-be voter questioned would say he supported the policy.
Obama was the first “just anybody” to become president. Hillary Clinton may now extend that “just anybody” concept to the female half of the story. In the 2008 campaign neither candidate had any clear policies. Senator McCain, the Republican standard-bearer just claimed he was the man to stop the US from becoming “Socialist” with Barack Obama who marketed himself as the harbinger of universal peace and amity.
Needless to say Obama was as much of a Socialist as McCain was “the warmonger” the Democrats portrayed him. In the end, Obama became “the reluctant warrior” distributing death and destruction with drones. This time, too, the choice is between two characters as the basic policies of the United States are shaped through a more complicated process than mere presidential decisions.
Occasionally, the president can do guerrilla-style policy making that disregards the decision-making system. President Ronald Reagan did that when he smuggled arms to Iran and the Contras in 1985-86, circumventing the Congress. Obama did it with his Iran “nuke deal”, a classic case of diplomatic deception. But in both cases, the guerrilla style didn’t produce a long-term policy.
If you want polite and unexciting presidential elections look to Russia or even Bilerussia. American presidential politics is ugly, at times revolting. But the result is the continuation of the democratic process, the least bad of all systems imaginable for a multi-ethnic society riven by countless divisions.
Was it Horace Walpole who said one shouldn’t visit a sausage factory where revolting processes take place, but be content with enjoying the product?