President Beatty? It's the American way

October 28, 1999|By Julia Keller

NOW THAT the giggles have simmered down, perhaps we can take a moment to ask just what's so funny and/or outlandish about a potential slate of presidential candidates that includes Warren Beatty, Jesse Ventura and Donald Trump.

Sure, I know the drill: Anyone of a serious turn of mind is supposed to get all itchy and outraged -- or else amused and dismissive -- about this purportedly whimsical turn in U.S. politics. We're supposed to rail against the silliness, the lack of appropriate gravity toward our government.

Well, this observer -- along with, I'll wager, several million kids in middle-school civics classes -- wants to know one thing: What's all the fuss about? Unlike many other nations, in which leadership qualities supposedly are uniquely situated in the genes, the United States has always maintained the opposite. Here, everybody is a contender.

Empty words

We teach our children that there are no disqualifying factors for advancement in America except lack of vision and ambition. But apparently that's not what we believe, based on the recent reaction to names being floated as possible candidates in the 2000 presidential contest.

I am being a bit disingenuous here, of course. I know perfectly well why commentators are seething about certain potential candidates: Such talk, they say, reveals the insipid shallowness of our celebrity-obsessed culture.

The real shame of contemporary politics? Not who's running, but who isn't: anybody who can't raise a gazillion bucks. Elizabeth Dole dropped out of the race last week, and it wasn't because Mr. Trump's on the march or Richard Simmons is looking good in New Hampshire. It's because the modern political machine is stoked by a single fuel: money.

Getting better candidates

Until we figure out how to make campaigns about something other than fund raising -- yet not interfere with the free-speech rights of anyone who wants to contribute to a candidate -- we may be missing out on the chance to tap some truly great leaders.

Meanwhile, we continue to reveal our deep ambivalence about this democracy thing, this idea that power isn't restricted to the king's kin or the boss' daughter.

When Andrew Jackson announced that he was seeking the 1828 presidential nomination, a woman who knew him well had this reaction, according to Robert Remini in his 1999 book "The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America's First Military Victory": "What! Jackson up for the president? Jackson? Andrew Jackson? . . . Well, if Andrew Jackson can be president, anybody can!"

Exactly. Would we really want it any other way?

Julia Keller is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.

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