On Jan. 20, 1981, Michael Deaver, a political aide, peered into a bedroom in Blair House, across from the White House, and said to the man still abed, “It’s 8 o’clock. You’re going to be inaugurated as president in a few hours.” From beneath the blankets, Ronald Reagan said, “Do I have to?”
Some are so eager to be inaugurated in 2017 that the 2016 campaign has begun 28 months before the 1.4 percent of Americans who live in Iowa and New Hampshire express themselves. It is, therefore, not too soon to get a head start on being dismayed. Consider two probable candidates.
Hillary Clinton comes among us trailing clouds of incense, so some acolytes will call it ill-mannered, even misogynistic, to ask: What exactly is it about the condition of the world, and about America’s relations with other nations, that recommends the former secretary of state for an even more elevated office?
Granted, neither she nor any other U.S. official can be blamed for the world’s blemishes. To think otherwise is to embrace what Greg Weiner, an Assumption College political scientist, calls “narcissistic polity disorder.” It is the belief that everything everywhere is about us. Today, it is the delusion that, although events in Egypt and Syria look like violent clashes between Egyptians and Syrians concerning what those countries should be, the events really are mostly about what America has or has not done.
That said, however, this also should be said: Clinton’s accomplishments are not less impressive than those of many who have sought, and some who have won, the presidency. But the disproportion between the thinness of her record and the ardor of her advocates suggests that her gender is much of her significance.
That contemporary feminism is thin gruel is apparent in the fact that it has found its incarnation in a woman who married her way to the upper reaches of American politics. There her wandering husband rewarded her remarkable loyalty by allowing her the injurious opportunity to produce a health-care proposal so implausible that a Democratic-controlled Congress (56 to 44 in the Senate, 256 to 178 in the House) would not bring it to a vote. Still, the world’s oldest political party might not allow a contest to mar the reverent awarding to her of its next nomination.
Republicans seem destined not for a staid coronation but for an invigorating brawl, and brawling is Chris Christie’s forte, even his hobby. Americans sometimes vote for the opposite of what has disappointed or wearied them, so they might want to replace Barack Obama, who is elegant but hesitant, with someone who is conspicuously neither. Christie, who is evidently cruising to gubernatorial reelection in blue New Jersey, can then say:
“Eighteen states and the District of Columbia, with 242 electoral votes, have gone Democratic in six consecutive elections. Unless the Republican nominee breaks this ‘blue wall,’ the Democratic nominee will spend autumn 2016 seeking 28 electoral votes and will find them. My brand of politics is entertaining and, perhaps for that reason, effective with people who considered Mitt Romney robotic.”
There can, however, come a point at which the way a politician acts becomes an act, a revival of vaudeville, and a caricature discordant with the demands of the highest offices. Christie, appearing recently on a sports talk radio program, erupted like Vesuvius when asked about a New York sportswriter who had criticized Christie’s friend Rex Ryan, coach of the New York Jets:
“Idiot. The guy’s a complete idiot. Self-consumed, underpaid reporter. . . . The only reason he’s empowered is because we’re spending all this time this morning talking about Manish Mehta, who, by the way, I couldn’t pick out of a lineup, and no Jet fan really gives a damn about Manish Mehta.”
Mehta’s tabloid, the Daily News, filled a page with the words, “Who you calling an idiot, fatso!” Great fun. But who wants to call the person “Mr. President” who calls a sportswriter an “idiot”?
Americans want presidents to understand and connect with ordinary people, but not to be ordinary. Because presidents are incessantly on view in Americans’ living rooms, decorum is preferable to drama. Americans want presidential toughness, which Christie has demonstrated admirably in confrontations with government employees’ unions. But because he has demonstrated it abundantly, he does not need to advertise it gratuitously.
He should heed another politician who had a flair for fighting. “Being powerful,” Margaret Thatcher said, “is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”