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How Pure Must Our Candidates Be?
The distasteful questions we ask our presidential hopefuls serve a real purpose
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
If we have trouble finding a similar figure now, it is because we do not have as firm a consensus of our values or as easy a way of signaling our identity. It was not held against Washington that he was a slaveholder. That was no disqualification for the Presidency down through Andrew Jackson’s time; after him, it became a liability, if not a disqualification. Slaveholding had by then been brought up and made relevant. Today, of course, we exclude slaveholders from running for office. We have even eliminated the electoral college except as a counting device—going more directly to more voters than ever in the search for a rallying figure in this large, heterogeneous nation. This is a risky process, and some want to reverse it. In a recent symposium sponsored by Harper’s magazine, Raymond Strother said: “We force a man or woman to run for president of the United States as though he were a city-council candidate in Dubuque.… The race for it [the Presidency] should be nobler and larger.”
The question of who deserves authority must be decided case by case.
The only way to maintain the charisma and distance of the office is to avoid the demeaning process of seeking votes in Iowa, exposing oneself to endless questions that reflect the confusions of the society at large. Charisma is protected (if not created) by not talking about certain things in front of the children. Robert Beckel agreed with his fellow symposiast: “These primaries don’t enhance a candidate. They mold the public’s opinion of a candidate and almost always mold it negatively.… This system has got to be overhauled, and we have to get this word ‘democracy’ out of the way. We have to get back to selecting delegates in a rational way that gets us our best nominee with the least amount of fighting.”
Though he seems to be calling, on the face of his words, for a return to smoke-filled rooms crowded with “brokers,” Beckel is actually expressing a deeper yearning for the original electoral college—for people who know what the voters should want, rather than what they think they want, and can do the choosing for them. The only trouble with this is that a modern electoral college would have to consider the same things the original one did: how to find a candidate who is convincing, persuasive, authentic in the role of speaking for America. And no candidate can be that anymore unless he or she goes directly to the people, with an open and inclusive campaign, rather than rely on an elite of the sort that ruled America in the 1780s. The “character issue” is simply the modern way of stating the abiding problem of the American Presidency: How is one person to express the character of the American people, a character that is never entirely made up, yet one that emerges (so far as that is possible) precisely through transactions like the campaigns for the Presidency?
We are always changing the rules in this process, simply by talking to each other every day. It is called self-government. And we talk to each other through the presses and the cameras, by what we read and see, or refuse to read or see, about Americans at some distance from us coping with the same questions we have. In an electronic age we must plug in to the process in order to become aware of all our fellow citizens. The community exists only so long as its parts are in electronic touch with each other. This leads us, if not toward consensus, then at least to a sense of the boundaries of our disagreement, the rules and limits within which we can keep on disagreeing, keep bringing up questions that matter to any of us, and still be conscious of ourselves as part of a larger community, one that, despite all the changes of recent years—or, rather, because of the changes that have brought in more women, more blacks, more gays, more of the deprived and handicapped—is a society achieving “a more perfect union.”