Candidate Washington

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They’re at it again. As I write, a big, well-barbered pack of would-be Presidents has already finished months of pestering the famously patient citizens of New Hampshire for their votes. By the time you read this, the surviving candidates, reduced in numbers but increased in volume, will have sound-bitten and photo-opped their way back and forth across the continent too many times to count, and if the past is any guide, we will all be pretty much agreed that the current presidential race is the worst ever—vulgar, empty-headed, unworthy of the world’s oldest democratic republic.

But as Gil Troy demonstrates in his lively run-through of fifty races, See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate (Free Press), presidential campaigns have always been pretty awful. And American voters have pretty much always thought they were. “In regard to the method pursued by political parties with reference to electing their presidential candidates,” said the New York Mirror in 1852, “there seems to be just one opinion: ‘That it is disgraceful to the country.’”

We’ve been picking Presidents for better than two centuries now. Why are we perennially embarrassed by the process?

The problem, Troy argues, lies less with the candidates or their handlers than with our own confusion over what we want from them. Since the Founders held contradictory notions about the role Presidents were supposed to play in our national life, we’ve never quite been able to make up our minds about it either. “The president was to be both king and prime minister,” Troy writes, “a national figurehead and the people’s representative … one of the people, but an exceptional man; elected by the people but not ‘subservient’ to them.”

Since power was always to be feared, anyone who actively sought it was suspect. “If a man sollicits you earnestly for your vote,” warned a 1771 pamphlet, “avoid him; self-interest and sordid avarice lurk under his forced smiles, hearty shakes by the hand and … deceitful enquir[i]es after your wife and family.” The President was to remain above petty politics and the sweaty search for votes. At first the process by which Presidents were chosen was deliberately removed from the direct power of the people whose strengths he was supposed to embody. Gentlemen legislators, not voters, picked the members of the Electoral College, who could therefore presumably be counted on not to be swayed by demagoguery.

George Washington was the great, aloof exemplar of this republican ideal. It was his unblemished character—“a TISSUE OF VIRTUES ,” wrote one awed editorialist—not his opinions, that made him the new nation’s near-unanimous choice.

But Washington proved to be sui generis , and that inconvenient fact, coupled with the broadening of suffrage and mushroom growth of parties, quickly led to the creation of the alternative presidential model Troy calls “liberal democratic.” Thereafter a candidate’s opinions as well as his character had to pass muster. “A man has to give up his own self-respect,” an Ohio editor complained as Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison faced off against each other in 1840, “or every hour give some offence to some pedagogue that stands over him with uplifted rod.”

From then onward no successful presidential candidate has been able entirely to avoid that gauntlet, although the Washingtonian ideal nonetheless remained so strongly lodged in our collective consciousness that it was almost a century before William Jennings Bryan dared stump openly from convention time to election day and not until 1932 that an incumbent President—Herbert Hoover, of all people, incensed by what he called the “hideous misrepresentations” of his Democratic challenger, Franklin D. Roosevelt—was willing to risk an all-out campaign of his own.

It is probably a good thing that candidates no longer feign uninterest; history suggests that reluctant warriors fare poorly in political battle. And democracy clearly demands that there be a dialogue between ordinary citizens and the men and women who hope to represent them. But the candidates’ naked desperation, the lengths to which they seem willing to go to make us love them and loathe their opponents, can’t help but awaken nostalgia for the old notion that, like Washington, candidates should neither seek nor dare decline the greatest gift the people can bestow.

George Washington’s famous reluctance to accept the Presidency was largely a function of his fear that in agreeing to serve, he might give the appearance of harboring “ ambition ,” of seeming to have “a vain-glorious desire of pushing [himself] into notice as a candidate.”

Yet few men have had a surer (or better-justified) sense of their central place in our history than Washington, and as a newly published contemporaneous biography shows, he was not above helping to ensure that his fellow citizens understood it too.

When, in 1785, a former aide and sometime poet named David Humphreys wrote to ask if he might be permitted to come to Mount Vernon, examine the general’s papers, and prepare a biography, Washington was delighted.