Perhaps we should all breathe a sigh of relief: now there are three. Or so it seems until the New Hampshire primary.
I have argued, from the onset, that the Republican party had far too many vanity candidates. This tended to make it look like the vanity party and vanity parties do not look like they take the office seriously.
Worse yet, many Republican voters took a look at all of the vanity candidates and decided that they were being asked to decide which one was the most vain.
If you care about experience and qualifications, there were precious few candidates who really had put in the time and work to be considered for the office of the American presidency. And yet, most voters do not seem to care. Experienced candidates fell by the wayside far more quickly than did vanity candidates.
Putting aside Trump, how can anyone imagine that Ben Carson has anything resembling a qualification for the office? Or that Carly Fiorina, as impressive as she is on a stage, should be considered, on the basis of her experience, for the office. Or that the also rans, like Huckabee, Santorum, Pataki, Gilmore, Graham, Jindal had any business presenting themselves as candidates for anything other than a vanity award.
A bunch of governors had some real experience and qualifications, but they were all sober and boring. Perhaps one of them will shine in New Hampshire, but once the Southern primaries begin in earnest, it looks like today’s top three will be the top three.
This morning Bret Stephens opined about this: why do American voters expect so little of their presidential candidates? But, Stephens did not limit himself to the motley Republican crew. He noted astutely that the Democratic field is being led by a superannuated socialist and a pathological liar.
Many people think that the nation’s leading pathological liar is eminently qualified for the office of the presidency, but anyone who thinks that she achieved anything while holding office does not understand what the word “achievement” means.
Stephens waxed nostalgic for the old days when a candidate for the presidency brought experience, wisdom and accomplishment to his quest:
There was a time when some form of military experience or outstanding civilian service was considered a prerequisite for the presidency. Or when first-term senators did not presume to run for the White House without putting in time, paying dues, making friends and authoring some significant piece of legislation. Or when conspicuous character flaws or pending legal jeopardies were automatic and irrevocable disqualifications.
I don’t agree with Stephens that the fault lies with Bill Clinton-- or with his legions of defenders-- but his argument is worth examining:
But all that is in the past now, and the moment that happened can be precisely dated. It began with Bubba. It began when America made its first presidential-level accommodation with the mores of the 1960s, and when it made a self-conscious choice to redefine, and demote, the concept of character in the hierarchy of political virtues.
Jimmy Carter came to office promising never to lie; he pledged an American government “as good as its people.” Bill Clinton lied, flagrantly and frequently, and he made us complicit in his lies. With Bubba we became a nation of pseudo-sophisticates, people who believed that the mark of the discerning voter was to see through—and past—the “character” issue. What mattered were results. In the halcyon 1990s, that seemed to work.
Today’s degraded politics is partly a result of that moral accommodation. It’s also the result of an intellectual accommodation. Let’s face it: If Mr. Clinton brought dishonor to the Oval Office, George W. Bush brought shallowness to it. Presidential aspirants were once expected to deliver finely tuned debating points about Quemoy and Matsu. After W, it became pedantic to expect candidates to know the names of the leaders of India and Pakistan.
Strictly speaking, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were experienced governors. Perhaps that is why no one wants to vote for an experienced governor ever again.
For my part I would point out that Bill Clinton was running less on his experience governing a small state like Arkansas and more on his celebrity status. Had it been otherwise he would never have survived the Gennifer Flowers scandal. But, we should also mention that Bill Clinton was an excellent politician. As opposed to our current, highly unqualified celebrity president, Bubba was willing to compromise with Republicans.
More importantly, Stephens was correct to note that Bubba helped America to make a moral accommodation with the Vietnam era counterculture. In that and especially in his notably depraved treatment of women he was one of America’s few celebrity presidents. Most importantly—because it is beyond dispute—Bubba and his wife Jezebel have excelled at using their post-presidential time to cash in on their fame, to get rich off of it.
Jimmy Carter has been building homes for poor people. George W. Bush has mostly disappeared from the scene. Bill Clinton cashed in; he got very, very rich.
Forget about Clinton’s sexual behaviors. His financial behavior degraded the presidency by making it look like something you could parlay into extreme wealth. With Clinton presidential humility took a body blow.
As it happened, Bill Clinton was really just imitating his mentor. The first celebrity president in the modern era, the first man who was elected on the basis of his charm, charisma and good looks and wit was John F. Kennedy. His presidency was not about what he could do for the country but what the country could do for him... and, not incidentally, for his father's reputation.
People did not know it at the time, but JFK was as much the skirt chaser as Bill Clinton was. They did know that Kennedy hung around with Hollywood celebrities and that Marilyn Monroe had sung Happy Birthday to him in Madison Square Garden in 1962. One notes that the performance was grossly insulting to Kennedy’s wife, who sagely chose not to attend.
People also knew that JFK surrounded himself with academics and other itinerant intellectuals, the best and the brightest. His was a presidency defined by the influence of what Plato would have called the guardian class… people who dealt in big ideas and who had little relevant practical experience.
Under Kennedy’s leadership, the best and the brightest were responsible for the greatest foreign policy debacle in American history: the Vietnam War.
And yet, people today consider John Kennedy a great president. The reason is that he was martyred, assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Media elites made sure that everyone got the true message of the Kennedy martyrdom: America was so seriously in his debt that it needed to venerate the values that he believed in and practiced.
The Vietnam counterculture was, effectively a cult to the memory of the martyred president. But it was also, in its ferocious anti-war rhetoric, an effort to shield John Kennedy and to shield American liberalism from responsibility for a catastrophic foreign policy failure. If you are going to lose a war it's best to pin it on someone else. In the world of moral depravity that is about as bad as it gets.