Thursday, October 18, 2012

Entitlement and the presidency

During an interview on a North Carolina radio show yesterday, the interviewer asked Mitt Romney’s son, Tagg, how he felt when he heard “the president of the United States call your dad a liar.”

Tagg’s response was vivid: Jump out of your seat and you want to rush down to the stage and take a swing at him. But you know you can't do that because, well, first because there's a lot of Secret Service between you and him, but also because that's the nature of the process.

He was being honest. It must be unbelievably hard to watch someone you love on the stage taking the figurative punches. Presidential campaigns are brutal and thankless. And, for those who are fortunate enough to win the seat, the ultimate job involves more of the same. To be frank, I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone in their right mind would want to be president of a nation, let alone a powerful nation. I know for a fact that I would not have the capacity to run for such a seat, or to support a loved one through the process.

Power alienates. The poor fellow who becomes head of state is raised onto a pedestal so high that people either expect him or her to be godlike or they demonize him or her. And the demonization is relentless. I’m thinking about all the racist drivel I’ve seen being directed at President Obama, the First Lady, and their family. I’m also thinking about all the attacks that Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton have put up with from the likes of Rush Limbaugh.

So, I do understand when people like Ann Romney or Tagg Romney get frustrated and say something they really shouldn’t say to an interviewer. They’re being human, and their human actions give us a peek at the pain they experience behind the curtains. It is evident from what they tell us that running for president is not all glamor. In fact, if you don't have the right personality type, it can be the greatest punishment imaginable.

At the same time, their words reveal something else to me: “privilege” and “entitlement.” David Sirota has written a piece on the very subject, describing it as an instance of “White privilege.” It’s an interesting piece, but I’m not making quite the same argument he is. To me, the privilege lies in the apparent presumption on the part of the candidate’s family that he has already won the seat. I’m sure there is a case to be made about race playing a part in all of this. But I think other people, like Sirota, are better qualified to make that particular argument than I am.

The idea that a candidate deserves to win a seat and is doing the whole nation a service by running is something I’ve heard more times than I care to remember. Frankly speaking, I think it’s a self-serving statement. It’s the sort of thing I have always expected a politician to say. But I did not actually expect him or her to believe it. And I did not expect his or her family to buy into it either. So you can understand that I was surprised to learn that these people actually start to believe this stuff after a while. And when they start to believe it, they start identifying too much with the coveted seat and thinking that it is theirs. That, my friends, is where the sense of entitlement comes in.

In the real world, people do not run for president so that they can devote their life to service. They run because they are ambitious and very much like the idea of being in power. Their motivations are selfish. Objectively speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just a fact of life. We need leaders, so we must have people self-centered and ambitious enough to want to step into that mantle. By contrast, nuns and monks devote their lives to serving others. Their efforts are directed at diminishing the ego and elevating the common good. This distinction is very important: We speak of winning the presidency, but I have never heard of anybody speak of winning the vow of poverty or the chance to serve in an orphanage or hospice. So we really need to stop pretending that presidential candidates are martyrs for the greatest cause.

Perhaps some presidential candidates and their families have to believe that they deserve the seat and that they are running for the sake of the country. Maybe convincing themselves that these are unshakeable truths helps to compensate for all the psychological trauma and exhaustion that they endure during the race.

Whatever the case, winning the seat is a privilege. It is not a foregone conclusion for any candidate. So it would probably be in the best interest of presidential campaigns to take their candidates and their families through counseling throughout the campaign and afterwards. Running for president takes too much out of the candidate and his or her family: it would be ideal if these people went into the experience with realistic expectations and with the understanding that they could lose, but that life would still go on. Party sycophants are unlikely to give this kind of guidance. So it falls on counselors to play this role.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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