It is amusing to see all manner of writers trying to discern the essence of John Kerry. George Melloan's Tuesday column in The Wall Street Journal was titled "Finding the Real John Kerry Isn't Easy."
We're still trying to figure out who Thomas Jefferson really was and what he meant, and Jefferson left a more extensive written record of his public and private life than all but a few presidents. Princeton University began publishing Jefferson's correspondence in 1950 and plans to complete the 75-volume project in the year 2026. It will include the approximately 20,000 letters that he wrote, plus his public papers and correspondence received. To illustrate the challenge of deciphering the third president, Joseph Ellis' book about Jefferson's character is titled American Sphinx. Political partisans on the left and at the libertarian end of the right claim ownership of Jefferson.
To choose a more modern president, Dwight Eisenhower defied easy analysis. Garry Wills' Esquire magazine article on Ike was titled "The Underestimation of Dwight D. Eisenhower." Wills ended the article with this sentence: "Remember, it was always a grin, never a smile." To illustrate Wills' article, Esquire used a drawing of Eisenhower as the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. Today's neoconservative Republicans don't claim Eisenhower, but many Americans find Ike's measured response to the Korean War refreshing when set against a president who is eager to send troops abroad.
There is a difference, of course, between analyzing a historical figure and someone who is competing to become a historical figure.
We want to know just who our prospective president is before we vote for him. That drive is frustrated by the political art, which rewards a certain amount of vagueness. In response to a reporter's question, Winston Churchill said the qualification for a politician were "the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen." Churchill was both a liberal and a conservative during his long career.
There is a close corollary of the desire to know who the candidate really is. This is the obsession with finding a perfect candidate. That candidate, of course, does not exist. People commonly say they are tired of voting for the lesser of the two candidates. But anyone over the age of 27 should be armed with a bit of realism, skepticism and even cynicism about human nature.
After being part of a political campaign and observing big-time politicians up close, I long ago decided that politics was equal parts of ego, greed and envy. I am in the midst of reading Master of the Senate, Robert Caro's description of Lyndon Johnson's rise to power in the U.S. Senate. Caro never lets us stray from the realization that Johnson above all else was a connoisseur of power. He knew how to get it and use it. With the power Johnson acquired, he did some despicable things to reward his contributors. He allowed the nation to languish in an untenable war. He also ended segregation in the South and made votingSearching for a perfect candidate is like looking for the perfect mate. rights for blacks a certainty. Johnson's Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act are among the most significant accomplishments of any president.
My point is that if you are not prepared to accept duality in politicians, you are like the man or woman seeking the perfect mate.
We venerate Lincoln, but the revealing evidence of his thoroughgoing pragmatism is a letter to his law partner in which he states that if he could have saved the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would do it; if he could have saved the Union by freeing none of the slaves he would have done it; and if he could have saved the Union by freeing one-half the slaves, he would have done that.
The curious - some would say scary - thing about George W. Bush is there is no duality to the man. He is a candidate for true believers. He is not afflicted with self examination, and he seems not to learn from experience. He told Bob Woodward that he did not consult with his father, a former president, before taking the country to war, but he did consult with a "higher father."
There is no compassion to Bush's conservatism, and he has presented us with an agenda that is radical, not conservative.