Another Perspective

Energy

Is the pursuit of the presidency nothing more than an exercise in naked aggression?

By 11.29.07

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On Bunker Hill Day in 1995, I marched in the parade with the Charlestown Against Drugs program. I jogged most of the way, three and a half miles, running from one side of the street to the other, passing out CHAD buttons and greeting people. When the parade was over, I drove up to Lynnfield and played nine holes of golf, walking, in about an hour and a half. All this in 95-degree heat.

At one point last week, I lay in bed with my eyes closed, carefully evaluating my physical state, trying to figure out how I could most efficiently get up and eat breakfast -- and not at all sure that I could make it.

I describe this contrast not to make a point about physical fitness or health or medicine or any such thing. In this season of presidential campaigning, however, I do point out that our candidates mainly engage in a contest of energies. That does not always yield the best president. It tends to yield the most aggressive contender.

HERE WE ARE, TOO, WITH ANOTHER CLINTON IN THE RACE. During the (Bill) Clinton administration, Clinton and his minions brought the ethos of show biz to politics. That ethos? Aggression works better than competence.

An old friend of mine, Bob Merlis, stated that principle to me in terms of the music business more than 20 years ago. Merlis, who worked at Warner Brothers, said, "There are people in this business who really aren't very good, who just got where they are through an iron will to get across."

Bill Clinton, of course, with his hound dog ways, ought to have been horsewhipped long before he got anywhere near the presidency. It amazes me that, coming up as he did through a state like Arkansas, some brother or father or husband of one of his paramours didn't get after him with something a lot deadlier than a horse whip.

But he made it to the Oval Office, where, in the key decision of his presidency, he told Dick Morris, "We'll just have to win then" -- this after Morris had told him his poll numbers were in the tank over Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton put aggression before competence, before principle, before the country, before everything -- to save his own hide. Our political culture learned the lesson well. Like bad money driving good out of the economy, Clintonian aggression drove competence out of politics for the rest of his administration and into the Bush administration, too. We got a little rest from it after 9/11, but it came roaring right back.

THAT SAID, THIS ELECTION LOOKS PRETTY GOOD. The two lead Republicans have started tearing into one another lately, over past performance and current ideas -- not over polemic fusillades like "cowboy diplomacy" or "quagmire." That tends to hold true down the line. An uncharacteristically strong and broad Republican field argues with one another over questions like, "What did you do?" and "What do you think?"

On the other side, the Democrats reiterate the same old talking points -- playing the same old politics of aggression. The ultimate nominee will, of course, play the game the same way in the general election. And that makes me wonder: What if the Republican candidate could frame the presidential election as ideas versus aggression? I mean, in such a way that the American people saw it that way?

This election may well be a debacle for the Republicans -- everybody seems to think so. But I actually find it encouraging that aggression doesn't simply match up against aggression this time around.

We may actually have a chance to put a whole different kind of politics in play. I hope we do.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.