Running for the rat race

Matthew White

After the State of the Union address last Monday, President Bush walked down the aisle of the House Chamber, spotted Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and said, “Hey buddy, how’s it going?” as he shook his hand.

If the two men were in a different location under different circumstances, the whole incident might have been entirely unremarkable, but when you’re dealing with the leader of the free world and a man who seeks to replace him, nothing is unremarkable.

In fact, everything is recorded, documented, transcribed, photographed and blogged about — digested and discussed by thousands of people and in hundreds of media outlets, including this one.

As a society, we go to great lengths to analyze candidates for our nation’s top political office. You could say we tear their lives apart in a cruel game and then report on how they put them back together again.

In the United States, candidates for the presidency begin their campaign years before the current president is out of office. In fact, many of our current candidates began recruiting volunteers and crafting their messages in 2006. Some of them began the arduous quest to get elected even before that.

From the outset, the whole process is an excruciating exercise in self-examination that requires explanations for even small misdeeds. Candidates very quickly become aware that every misdeed and every misjudgment will be used against them and placed in the worst possible light.

Consider what campaigning must be like. Candidates raise millions of dollars in contributions and spend years traveling the country, sleeping in hotels every night, talking to millions of people in an exhausting effort for votes.

And, if they’re lucky enough to win, they receive a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job that opens them up for even further criticism. Being president means making high-stakes decisions; it means trusting your judgment even when everyone thinks you’re wrong, and that takes an amazing amount of self-confidence.

So, when Bush stretches his hand out to Obama and asks him how it’s going, perhaps Bush is thinking about the criticism and personal smears his potential successor will face. Perhaps he’s thinking about the dissection of his potential successor’s entire life by political opponents and the media. (Remember when Sen. Hillary Clinton criticized Obama for a statement he made in kindergarten about wanting to be president some day?)

Regardless of what Bush was thinking, the entire process our leaders undergo to become president, and the way they’re treated once they take office, should make those pause who are concerned about getting the best possible person in office.

It’s impossible to know how many potential candidates look at the grueling process and decide that it just isn’t going to be feasible for them to undergo the intensity. But, at the same time, without that intensity, it’s possible our nation would end up with an inferior candidate.

Ultimately, we can’t win for losing.

All Americans who are willing to thrust themselves into campaigning for the presidency are patriots, and all of them deserve to be respected — even as they’re being dissected.

Matthew White is a senior magazine journalism major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].