“Sir, wake up. An event has occurred.”
I didn’t have to open my eyes to recognize the voice. Not the individual, but the type. Young, male. military, calm but urgent. Which meant that something somewhere had gone very wrong, very fast, and could get worse if nothing was done soon or the wrong choice was made. I sighed, swung my legs over the side of the bed onto the floor and got up.
And I was alone in my bedroom at home. There was no one there at all. A dream had awakened me.
Thinking about that dream, I gave up trying to sort out specifics, but chewed on a few generalities in my mind. And one of those is what it means to be President of the United States.
One of the more stupid charges tossed out from time to time, is to try to insult the President for taking “vacation”. That word is a misnomer, because Presidents do not get the chance to get away from the job and relax. The plain fact is, Presidents never get vacations; even former Presidents find that they cannot simply visit a mall or take in a movie – the current culture requires advance planning for even the most mundane activity – ask Bill Clinton how easy it is for him to go to a McDonald’s these days, or G.H.W. Bush to decide on the spur of the moment to go golfing. And for the sitting President, that “vacation” is all work. All it really means is a change of location, and some pretty scenery – a lot of people are clueless to how often Presidents hold private conferences with key foreign and Congressional leaders while on “vacation”; Carter’s Egypt-Israel peace treaty started with phone conversations during one of Carter’s “vacations”. Dubya has met with Tony Blair, Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister Koizumi, and many other leaders while on “vacation”. And do I really need to remind the reader that every President, regardless of party or circumstance, is never far from the “football” or aides who will not hesitate to inform him of serious events? You know, now I think about it it’s no wonder no President ever had a child conceived while he was in office – the knowledge that a Secret Service agent could enter without any warning would “kill the mood” for anybody. Well, almost anybody.
But getting back to the topic under discussion, when Americans are choosing a President, it is important to realize that the war condition of the nation is a critical factor. I would suggest that when people are worried about conflict, they are less likely to consider changing the party in leadership, but when things are relaxed and going well in national security terms, they will consider alternatives more readily. Sometimes the more competent leader is seen in the light of who can lead effectively in time of war. In other times, war seems unpopular or irrelevant and a war leader is less respected than an economic leader. With that in mind, consider the war qualifications of the following failed candidates:
Dewey 1948 Economic leader, not seen as a war leader
Stevenson 1952, 1956 Intellectual, not a war leader
Nixon 1960, 1968 Not seen as a war leader, hurt him in 1960 but
helped him in 1968 (seen as war leader in 1972)
Goldwater 1964 Depicted as emotional and unstable
Humphrey 1968 Not seen as a war leader
McGovern 1972 Not seen as a war leader
Ford 1976 Not seen as a war leader (given Vietnam and Carter’s Navy experience)
Carter 1980 Seen as militarily incompetent
Mondale 1984 Not seen as a war leader
Dukakis 1988 Not seen as a war leader
Bush 1992 War experience seen as irrelevant
Dole 1996 War experience seen as irrelevant
Gore 2000 Not seen as a war leader
Kerry 2004 Not seen as a war leader
This overly-simple description of these men is not meant to slap them, but examine them in the context of their election year. Truman looked tougher than Dewey, General Eisenhower more than Stevenson, former Navy officer JFK over Nixon, reasonable Nixon over indecisive Humphrey or partisan Wallace, war-hardened Nixon over McGovern, reasonable Carter over reflexive Ford, decisive Reagan over timid Carter and Mondale, war veteran GHW Bush over wanna-be Dukakis, peacetime-priorities Clinton over war relics Bush and Dole, “Dubya” Bush tougher than Al “Treeman” Gore.
It’s probably too soon to get an accurate fix on the 2004 election, though. Did Bush win over Kerry because Bush was seen as tougher than Kerry, who trotted out tired old overdone stories whenever he wanted to sell his cred, or was it that Kerry seemed to dwell on Iraq all the time, while Bush seemed more reasonable talking about job growth and Social Security reform? I have a sneaking suspicion that Bush carried more cred than Kerry because of his record – what moron thought you could sell a ex-Vietnam protestor as a war hero? But I also suspect that Bush sold his case in more than one dimension, while Kerry droned on about magic hats and his wounded pride.
In conclusion, it seems to me that we are all aware that every single President is awakened sooner or later by that aide or young officer. And we elect Presidents in some measure on the assumption of how they will address the issue. The optimal candidate will have the foresight to anticipate the crisis; the wisdom to place the best-qualified officials to address the specific needs and to trust them to know their job; the intelligence and diligence to develop a plan and make changes or adjustments as necessary; and the courage to stand – alone if necessary – behind the plan through its completion. In retrospect, the decisions of the past elections make these points clear, and it is significant to consider who, among the many who want the job, is really capable to carry that burden in the next Administration.