That Strange Creature, the President


February 07, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The presidency of the United States is sui generis, like nothing else. Only 40 men know what it is like. And the United States is so young that five of those men are still alive: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

The rest of us can only guess at the answers to these two questions: How do you become president? What's the job; what are we paying the president to do?

The first answer is easier: You get to be president by wanting to be. Our presidents are self-selected. They choose themselves as kids, usually, probably thousands of them, and live their lives calculating each personal decision and sizing up everyone they meet or maneuver to meet as part of the quest to be in the top hundred, then the Final Four of their generation.

And one of them makes it, by being ready to catch the long wave of their time.

A photograph is worth a thousand explanations of such phenomena. There is just such a photograph of a 17-year-old at one of those American Legion Boys State programs, leaning forward and holding the hand and glance of President Kennedy. The president was moving his body away, as always, but the kid hung on for extra seconds, trying to be noticed, even remembered. Kennedy seems to get what's going on -- it takes one to know one.

The teen-ager in the picture was Bill Clinton.

What will this Bill Clinton do if he becomes the 41st man? I don't know. Neither does he. That's what sui generis means.

I do know, or believe I know, a few things about the presidency because I have been working on a presidential biography for the past few years. No one is prepared. The campaign has nothing to do with being president, and I'm not sure that ''character,'' whatever that is, does either. The job is almost totally reactive, though a president does have great power to persuade people that total surprises are examples of his secret planning and preparation.

The greatest difficulty is in adjusting to the resonance of the office -- politicians babble on for years and no one listens, then suddenly everyone is listening, and people actually change their ideas and lives because of what the man says.

Take Kennedy as an example. Whatever he thought he was going to do as president -- he didn't really think much about it -- his actions were reactions to the boldness of others.

The people who made things happen in his years were a reckless leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, and Negro college students, many of them responding to a call for action that Kennedy never meant to make. The 35th president was just talking, saying what politicians always say.

So, after a while, I began to ask everyone I interviewed this question: What's the job? What do we pay the guy to do? These were some of the answers:

''Articulate what is unspoken in the heart of the American people; a mystical gift to divine what they want.'' -- Edmund Morris, biographer of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

''Maintain the prestige and standing of the United States in the world.'' -- Richard Helms, former CIA director.

''To figure out cutting-edge problems and move people in the direction of solving them.'' -- Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense.

''Set priorities. The most important thing a president does is choose what to do.'' -- Arthur Schlesinger, biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt and aide to Kennedy.

''Double duty. Not only to make decisions but to explain them.'' -- McGeorge Bundy, former national-security adviser.

''Ride events and stitch together initiatives.'' -- Richard Neustadt, scholar of presidential power.

My own answer would be close to another thought that Edmund Morris had: ''To represent the best in us.''

And which of the men marching through New Hampshire is most likely to do a decent job?

Your guess is as good as mine. Democracy is a gamble -- on ourselves.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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