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How To Become President
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
To come to a right conclusion in respect to your future course in so grave a matter we must look at the subject all round, at the past as well as the probable future. We must do so freely without reproaches on either side, and without being thin-skinned, sensibly, and looking the truth in the face. It is now somewhat over a quarter of a century since you were fairly launched as a lawyer and a politician [and]...it must be admitted that you have not been very successful. Compare the results of your career with mine during the same period and the comparison is unfavourable to yours. We will admit that the free soil business has been an obstacle, and we will throw the blame of that on me....Still, your career has been an unsuccessful one. We now see how we both gave power to inferior men by weakening our hold on the party. That is all past now, as you have re-established yourself in that respect very fully, and the only question is in respect to the best course to be pursued for the future....If I were in your situation, the following is the course I would pursue, and I would adhere to it as steadily as time....
You have succeeded in establishing your character as the “greatest election orator in this or any other country,” according to the Union, and the Union for once is right....How is this, the greatest of all political accomplishments, to be employed?...Now, instead of speaking often, I would speak but seldom. I would not, as before, go about the country making speeches. I would only attend the meetings at Tammany on great occasions, when great questions are in agitation. These I would ponder upon and study deeply, and throw light upon the subject not accessable to others; these I would utter in a sober, statesmanlike way, dealing only in wit and merriment, making flashes as much as will suffice when given in small doses for the groundlings. I would not forget or neglect them altogether, as nature has conferred the gift upon you, but I would make their gratification a secondary subject, aiming chiefly at the public judgment, the public conscience, and the public good....Farther than this, I would not meddle with politics. I would continue, as you have already begun, to have nothing to do with appointments. I would attend no conventions, and enter in no intrigues about nominations, and discuss as little as possible the character and pretension of my contemporaries, political or professional. Upon these points you have already improved....I would make it a point to speak invariably well of...other would-be great men in the State, particularly those who think they deserve to be well-spoken of; taking no part, and feeling no preference in, their intrigues and intentions about nominations, etc. None of these things pay in any way. Seven out of ten of those you benefit will prove ungrateful, all of your opponents will be vindictive, you will fritter away your strength, and worry yourself to no purpose by caring about, and still more by meddling in any of these matters.
But you must keep yourself before the people, and you must continue to attract the attention of observers, and to be the subject of the remarks of mankind. That is indispensable, and fortunately the course that leads to it is directly before you....A vigorous and almost exclusive pursuit of the duties of your profession would be with you the course that would not fail to lead to honour, pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, and prosperity. Nothing will be easier for you to obtain in a very short period than a decided lead at the bar. None of those that enjoy that distinction now, have pressed their advantageous points decidedly. They are beginning to sit heavily on the public taste....
You can push your success to a much higher point, indeed there is scarcely any limit which with care and study you might not be able to reach. Business in the Courts in Washington should be a principal object. One really great argument in the presence of intelligent men from all parts of the United States would do you more good than could be accomplished by a year’s work in any other way....Thus, fairly started on a natural track that has less annoyances than any other...you would soon become not only the ablest political and professional orator, but stand a fair chance to become also in one twelvemonths the best looking man among your contemporaries....
“The people will never make a man President who is so importunate as to show...that he...is in active pursuit of the office.”
I am really ashamed of writing you so long a letter, but as this is the first time that you have complained of me for not giving you advice, I have decided to give you enough and to spare. You may felicitate yourself on the circumstance that it will require no answer....
Very Truly Yours, M. VAN BUREN