Commentary — From the March 1975 issue

When Did You Stop Wanting to Be President?

An unscientific poll of interested parties

Ronald Reagan

I never started. Now, more than ever, I believe the job must “seek the man.” Aspiration to the Presidency is the stuff of boyhood dreams for a lot of youngsters (and I hope it continues to be) , but an adult must have another perspective.

If, at a time in history, growing numbers of people express belief that a particular person holds the right set of principles to be President, events will find a way of setting themselves in motion which he must accept or pass by.

But the man who sets out to acquire the Presidency–with single-minded drive, zeal, yearning, and planning–may forget that it is the job’s symbolic inspiration for the people, not the actual power, that is important. Unfortunately, that has happened more than once in this century. The Framers of the Constitution foresaw the President as another citizen, a human being first, who also had a blend of abilities to inspire his fellow citizens to cherish liberty and an ability to understand what they wanted accomplished.

Americans like to be inspired by their Presidents. The Watergate saga diminished the inspirational quality of the job, but I have no doubt it will recover.

I am concerned, though. We need to lower our expectations for miracle-working on the part of our Presidents. Ever since FDR appeared to pull off some genuine miracles during the Depression (with delayed flaws he didn’t foresee), we have come to expect the President and the federal government to instantly solve just about any human problem that comes along.

Governments tend not to solve problems, only rearrange them, and not instantly at that. As our symbolic leader, the President is the first one to catch the wrath of those most disappointed. He should set the right example, both personally and in the conduct of his duties, but he can’t be an emperor, a philosopher-king, or a magician. The sooner we let that be known, the sooner we’ll have public confidence in the position go up again.

Ronald Reagan, former Republican Governor of California, is a member of the new Presidential commission studying the CIA’s alleged misconduct.

Theodore C. Sorensen

I stopped on March 22, 1973, about 6:30 A.M. Sudden Watergate disillusionment? Fear of executive burdens in my old age? No–this was the hour my daughter Juliet was born, when my privacy became more cherished than ever.

William S. Burroughs: “I never wanted to be President. This innate decision was confirmed when I became literate and saw the President pawing babies and spouting bullshit.”

Actually, I gave up wanting to be President at the age of four, when I decided I would be a fireman instead. (I have also given up from time to time wanting to sing at the Metropolitan, pitch for the Washington Senators, and sell seashells at the seashore. )

But my experiences since age four have not caused me to want the job actively again. The qualities usually required to be a good President, I observed during my years in the White House, are not beyond the reach of any reasonably intelligent, energetic citizen experienced in public affairs. But the qualities usually required to become President–the willingness to compromise one’s privacy, preferences, and precision of commitment–are generally gained only by long and successful pursuit of the political profession.

That is not my profession, though I honor it. We should all stop begrudging the fact that only politicians are considered for the Presidency and start being grateful for their willingness to undergo that ordeal (the race, not the job).

I hope that public financing and other campaign reforms will over the years make it less of an ordeal–at least by the time Juliet or one of her brothers is thirty-five.

Theodore Sorensen, a New York attorney, was counsel to President Kennedy. His latest book is Watchmen in the Night: Presidential Accountability After Watergate (MIT Press).

George Romney

I aspired, and though I achieved not, I was satisfied.

George Romney has no regrets.

Kevin H. White

The sad truth about the political events of the Seventies is that they have had an impact, negative and overwhelming, on our collective sense of institutional well-being. They threaten an erosion of faith in the political process, a belief in the corruption of politics, diminished public interest and private involvement in public life, and temporary blindness where there is a need for a cogent and healing vision of the future.

Yet, despite this litany of regret, there is a value to our sadness. For these same events have helped all Americans remember who we are and how much we depend upon the integrity of the institutions that we support and which, in turn, support us.

Eugene McCarthy: “Voters should also be wary of candidates who, on first seeing the White House, said, ‘That is the house in which I want to live.’”

I believe the Presidency will withstand the tests of the times, and it will survive them without significant alteration. I take exception to the notion that our constitutional system is in need of basic revision or that abusive application of power is necessarily an indictment of the power structure. Certainly the abuses we have witnessed are unconscionable, but one fundamental reality remains: every major public executive, whether he or she is a mayor or a Governor or a President, carries responsibilities and faces challenges far beyond the scope of the power inherent in these offices.

Healthy restraints upon the Presidency are unquestionably desirable. But the effect of restructuring must be a restoration of public trust in the office of the President and not an abdication of Presidential authority. The central problem is not power, but rather how accountability for that power can be guaranteed. Reducing the scope of a political office is not a panacea for irresponsible use of that office.

There is no fail-safe mechanism against abuse in high public office. What is needed, therefore, is a review of our standards for the selection of the men and women we place in these offices. If there is any lesson of the trying months past, it is simply that awesome responsibility demands unusual character, and that the quality of our national leadership will determine our success as a democracy.

Kevin White, the Democratic mayor of Boston, takes a professional interest in national politics.

Kevin Phillips

My fascination with the Presidency goes back to age eight or nine when I memorized the names of chief executives from Washington through Truman and subjected various aunts and grandparents to the recitation. Slightly older, I bought rubbery bubble gum to get a set of brass coins with the heads of John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, et al.

Boys in those days looked up to Presidents, and probably thought about being President. But that was a long time ago. I ain’t lookin’ up any more.

Nobody’s enthusiasm wanes overnight. Ole Lyndon started the ball rolling with his surgical scar, phony rat-control bill, monogrammed underwear, and monogrammed female relations. Then Richard Nixon took over the task. I left his administration in early 1970 in displeasure with a plastic empire run by Haldeman—Ehrlichman soap salesmen. It was no fun writing critical columns in 1970 and 1971 when people were not yet ready to hear what twerps were running the White House. Now we’ve got Gerald Ford, who pops his own English muffins and focuses a different but just as painful embarrassment on the office.

The Presidency will take awhile to recover from all this, and the institution itself may be greatly changed. The whole process may be watched best from a distance.

Kevin Phillips is the author of The Emerging Republican Majority (Arlington House).

William S. Burroughs

Both in this life or any previous incarnations I have been able to check out, I never wanted to be President. This innate decision was confirmed when I became literate and saw the President pawing babies and spouting bullshit. I attended Los Alamos Ranch School, where they later made the atom bomb, and bombs bursting in air over Hiroshima gave proof through the night that our flag was already there. Then came the Teapot Dome scandal under President Harding, and I remember the unspeakable Gaston Means, infamous private eye and go-between in that miasma of graft, walking into a hotel room full of bourbon-drinking, cigar-smoking lobbyists and fixers, with a laundry hamper.

“Fill it up boys, and we talk business.”

I do not mean to imply that my youthful. Idealism was repelled by this spectacle. I had by then learned to take a broad general view of things. My political ambitions were simply of a humbler and less conspicuous caliber. I hoped at one time to become commissioner of sewers for St. Louis County–$300 a month, with the possibility of getting one’s shitty paws deep into a slush fund–and to this end I attended a softball game where such sinecures were assigned to the deserving and the fortunate. Everybody I met said, “Now I’m old So-and-so, running for such and such, and anything you do for me I’ll appreciate.” My boyish dreams fanned by this heady atmosphere and three mint juleps, I saw myself already in possession of the coveted post, which called for a token appearance twice a week to sign a few letters at the Old Court House; while I’m there might as well put it on the sheriff for some marijuana he has confiscated, and he’d better play ball or I will route a sewer through his front yard. And then across the street to the Court House Café for a coffee with some other lazy bastards in the same line of business, and we wallow in corruption like contented alligators.

I never wanted to be a front man like Harding or Nixon–taking the rap, shaking hands, and making speeches all day, family reunions once a year. Who in his right mind would want a job like that? As commissioner of sewers I would not be called upon to pet babies, make speeches, shake hands, have lunch with the queen; in fact, the fewer voters who knew of my existence, the better. Let kings and Presidents keep the limelight. I prefer a whiff of coal gas as the sewers rupture for miles around–I have made a deal on the piping which has bought me a $30,000 home, and there is talk in the press of sex cults and orgies carried out in the stink of what made them possible. Fluttering from the roof of my ranch-style house, over my mint and marijuana, Old Glory floats lazily in the tainted breeze.

But there were sullen mutters of revolt from the peasantry: “Is this the American way of life?” I thought so, and I didn’t want it changed, sitting there in my garden, smoking the sheriff’s reefers, coal gas on the wind sweet in my nostrils as the smell of oil to an oil man or the smell of bullshit to a cattle baron. I sure did a sweet thing with those pipes, and I’m covered, too. What I got on the Governor wouldn’t look good on the front page, would it, now? And I have my special police to deal with vandalism and sabotage, all of them handsome youths, languid and vicious as reptiles, described in the press as no more than minions, lackeys, and bodyguards to His Majesty the Sultan of Sewers.

The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts. Then I met the gubernatorial candidate, and he looked at me as if trying to focus my image through a telescope and said, “Anything I do for you I’ll depreciate.” And I felt the dream slipping away from me, receding into the past, dim, jerky, far away–the discrete gold letters on a glass door: William S. Burroughs, Commissioner of Sanitation. Somehow I had not intersected. I was not one of them. Perhaps I was simply the wrong shape. Some of my classmates, plump, cynical, unathletic boys with narrow shoulders and broad hips, made the grade and went on to banner headlines concerning $200,000 of the taxpayers’ money and a nonexistent bridge or highway, I forget which. It was a long time ago. I have never aspired to political office since. The Sultan of Sewers lies buried in a distant 1930s softball game.

What would you do if you were in the President’s place? You would be inexorably pressured by the forces and the individuals that made you President, and by your own desire to be President in the first place; so you would wind up doing just what they all have done. It’s enough to stop any sane man from wanting to be President.

William Burroughs is the author of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and most recently, Exterminator! (Viking).

Eugene J. McCarthy

In my case the question is not the one you ask, but rather this: “When will you start wanting to be President of the United States?”

You may recall that in 1968 my critics, especially the liberal critics, said that I did not want the Presidency enough, and that for that reason I should not be elected.

My defense, which they would not accept, was that whereas I did not “want” to be President of the United States, I was willing to be President, and that “willing” is a stronger commitment than “wanting.” There were in 1968 any number of politicians who wanted the Presidency more than I did, but who were unwilling to take the risks of campaigning against an incumbent President.

The electorate should be suspicious of Presidential candidates who want the Presidency too much or too soon. No one who says that he or she has wanted to be President of the United States since the age of ten or twelve should be elected. At that age, a more proper and becoming ambition is to be a firefighter, a figure-skating champion, or a major-league baseball player.

Voters should also be wary of candidates who, on first seeing the White House, said, “That is the house in which I want to live.”

If things continue to go as they have been in recent years, and the office of the Presidency is conceived and operated as it has been, I may not only be willing to be President, but I may even want the office in 1976.

Eugene McCarthy recently decided to stop being ambiguous and to start running.

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