The Washington Examiner
June 21, 2007
By Alan W. Dowd
Almost 40 percent of Democratic primary voters—and fully 60 percent of their Republican counterparts—say they are unhappy with the current field of presidential candidates. When you scan the bios of these would-be presidents, it’s easy to understand why. The field may be long on names—almost 20 by my count—but it’s short on depth.
Just consider the frontrunners: There’s the hyper-ambitious candidate from Illinois, who’s probably over his head in a national race dealing with such weighty issues as war and peace. There’s an Eastern liberal with a few moderate tendencies that seem more calculating than sincere.
There’s a war hero who fancies himself a straight-talking reformer—both pluses for a presidential candidate. Of course, he’s also hotheaded and hawkish. And his maverick mentality may have worn on voters, especially the party faithful.
A couple of candidates appear to be opportunists reaching for the next rung on the ladder—and adopting new positions to propel their upward climb.
And then there’s an actor-turned-politician-turned-actor. He knows what to say and how to say it, yet questions remain about his ability to deliver.
You can almost hear the voters ask, with a sigh, “And this is the best we can do?” If the answer is yes, then America will probably be just fine. How can I be so optimistic?
Well, long before Barak Obama tried to parlay his 29 months of Senate experience into a presidential run, and long before Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani—ahem—evolved on a few issues, Abraham Lincoln was equal parts opportunist, political neophyte and statesman-in-the-making. It pays to recall that the Lincoln of 1856-60 did not appear equal to the task of saving the Union or freeing the slaves or delivering that masterpiece eulogy at Gettysburg. In fact, from this side of history, the sainted statesman appears to have been in constant campaign mode, running—in some cases repeatedly—for state legislature, Congress, Senate and finally president.
And contrary to his hagiographers, Lincoln changed his position on the most important issue of his day. Lincoln, who in his first inaugural explained, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists,” would four years later declare that the war would go on “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” How’s that for evolving?
Likewise, Hillary Clinton fits the description of an ambitious candidate with Illinois roots. Of course, because one of the three states she calls “home” is New York, she also fits the description of an Eastern liberal with a willingness to brandish moderate views when politically convenient. The same could have been said of John F. Kennedy, who somehow convinced the American people that he would be tougher on the communists, and stronger on defense, than General Eisenhower.
John McCain’s quick temper and maverick mentality are just a shadow of Theodore Roosevelt’s. In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris uses words like “raucous,” “hell-raising” and “shocking frankness” to describe TR’s simmering temper. He challenged powerbrokers in his own party, and as the hero of San Juan Hill, he was unapologetic about American strength. Indeed, his answer to a world teeming with problems and dangers was not to retreat behind the false protection of the oceans, but to “carry a big stick” and wield an “armed hand.”
Finally, Fred Thompson is not the first actor to run for president. Ronald Reagan played the part brilliantly, convincing even his critics at home and adversaries abroad that he was far more than a smooth-talking “amiable dunce.”
His dramatic pronouncements in public were matched by deft and shrewd diplomacy in private. In fact, while the “wise men” in Washington and their media lapdogs howled about Reagan’s military buildup and hard line with Moscow, Reagan quietly ended the Cold War. As Mikhail Gorbachev put it at Reykjavik, “The President of the United States does not like to retreat.”
Less than five months later, it was Gorbachev who retreated. Soon, the Cold War—and the Soviet Union—melted away. Reagan’s hard line had paved the way for a soft landing.
Making these sorts of comparisons can be risky, to be sure. As Lloyd Bentsen famously reminded Americans in 1988, not everyone is a JFK. But it pays to recall that JFK was no JFK in 1959. He was, like today’s crop of candidates, just another ambitious politician trying to become president—and hoping to become a statesman.