I BELIEVE I have identified the fundamental problem with presidential politics in this country. It's a take-off on that old joke about being in a club: I wouldn't want to have anything to do with a club that would have a member like me.
The last person we need for president of the United States is someone who really wants the job. Think about it. Everyone knows what kind of job it is: long hours, dangerous exposure to lots of nut cases and, worst of all, endless and thankless criticism from everyone from the pope to the guy pumping gas in rural Howard County. So why would anyone want such a job?
I can't avoid the inevitable answer to this question. Anyone who wants to be president is either really itching to tell everyone else what to do, or hoping to milk the system for everything he or she can get.
Is this the kind of president we want?
I have a better idea, and it's one I've been working on and refining for some time. I suggest a presidential lottery. Here's how it would work:
Start with a complete list of American citizens. Remove from the list the convicted felons. (I don't think we do that now, actually.) Then remove anyone who has ever expressed an interest in having the job. (This will have the added advantage of giving the CIA something to do now that the Iron Curtain is down, saving thousands from the unemployment line.)
Now, randomly draw 100 names. That list is likely to contain the name of the next president of the United States. Further work will be done then to remove from the list anyone who has failed to pay taxes (we don't need a Leona Helmsley redecorating the White House out of the defense budget), has a current serious drug or alcohol problem (experimentation in the past doesn't count, whether or not there was inhalation) or is active in TC political party (lest the new president harbor secret political ambitions). Then, from the remaining names we will draw one. (In the event that none of the 100 survives these tests, the presidential lottery director will select another 100 from the original list.) A telegram will be sent to that person:
Congratulations! You have been selected by lottery to be the next president of the United States. Your term begins January 1, 1993, and for the duration of the four-year term, you will be entitled to residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., and a fine salary.
Please contact the Presidential Lottery Director for a complete list of the other prizes.
There are limited conditions under which you may be excused from this duty. If you can verify mental illness (a physician's note is required), undetected commission of a serious crime, any previous connection with an S&L or a past history of undue political ambition, you may be able to earn a deferment. (Please be aware that a phobia of the media does not presently qualify as a mental illness.)
If you plan to apply for a deferment, it will be necessary for you to prove your mental illness, crime, S&L connection or ambition. Please contact the Internal Revenue Service for the necessary forms.
I think we have a very good chance of selecting an excellent president with my method. Statistically, we are likely to end up with a person with fewer skeletons in the closet than with the traditional method. The average person just doesn't have time to come up with all those skeletons. I think the odds are that we are likely to come up with individuals who are more faithful to their spouses (although one little slip-up will not disqualify the draftee, lest we encourage such behavior as a way of avoiding responsibility).
What kind of president would this person be? I think of my dad being selected. He would feel about the same as he does about jury duty: He'd prefer to get out of it, but if pressed, he'd admit that it was his patriotic duty, like serving in the Navy. He didn't get all excited about that in 1944, but he was ready to go.
My dad has a solid idea of what is right and what is wrong. "No, thanks," he'd say if they told him he could bounce checks with no penalty. "Never did that before. Why start now?" He'd insist on paying for his own haircuts because his hair grew the same way before he was drafted to the presidency. He might agree to riding in a limousine, but he'd want to drive it himself.
My dad would want to carry his own bags to Air Force One. And he'd probably try to consolidate travel so it wouldn't cost too much. "And as long as Congresswoman Jones is flying to Peoria, too, why doesn't she go along with us? Save the taxpayers the cost of first-class travel for her."
My dad wouldn't have trouble remembering how it is to live on Social Security, but he wouldn't want to keep receiving his check while he was serving his term, either. I'm pretty sure he wouldn't try to switch his residency to Texas to save on taxes, either, although he actually did live in Texas for a long time. My dad wouldn't be amazed at those new-fangled scanners in the supermarket.
My dad wouldn't be interested in sticking around when his time was up, either. He'd pack up, pat the new draftee on the back and go back to New Mexico.
"Good luck," he'd say.
Terri Combs Orme is an assistant professor of maternal and child health at Johns Hopkins University's School of Hygiene and Public Health.