Republicans, increasingly anxious about the approaching presidential contest, are spending an inordinate amount of time searching for saviors.
As a result, accomplished governors, charismatic candidates-turned talk show hosts, and rising congressional stars have been beseeched to run, and all have politely declined.
Disconsolate, GOP faithful wonder how any concerned and qualified citizen could possibly resist the call of the White House. For guidance, they should consult William Tecumseh Sherman.
The controversial general’s notoriety extends beyond his brilliant battlefield strategy; by his own admission, he was the first American to turn down the presidency.
Sherman’s rejection of the 1884 Republican presidential nomination, referenced with regularity every four years, is legendary. But his rationale for refusing, less frequently cited, should provide comfort to those who opt not run and bring clarity to their frustrated suitors.
The demand for the general’s candidacy actually predated the 1884 contest by more than two decades. Shortly before Union forces, under Sherman’s command, captured Atlanta in September 1864, some Democrats, looking for a solider-candidate, set their sights on the architect of that soon-to-be concluded campaign.
But when Sherman caught wind that Democrats hoped to make him their man, he wrote disgustedly, “If forced to choose between the penitentiary and the White House for four years… I would say the penitentiary, thank you.” The Democrats nominated General George McClellan, and Sherman, never comfortable with politics, managed to steer clear of presidential talk. For a time.
After President U.S. Grant’s renomination in 1872, forward-looking Republicans envisioned Sherman, now Commanding General of the U.S. Army, as his successor. But Sherman, whose distrust of politicians (in his opinion, they were men who used “their temporary power for selfish ends” ) had been reinforced during Grant’s ethically-challenged administration, flatly informed former Missouri Congressman James S. Rollins that he would not accept the job — even “if nominated or elected.”
As if to underscore this, Sherman relocated Army headquarters from Washington to St. Louis, where he remained until called back to the capital in 1875.
Sherman’s retirement and return to Missouri in 1884 coincided with another presidential contest, and yet another attempt to coerce the old general into the fray. As Republicans gathered in Chicago in June to settle on a standard bearer, loyalties fractured between President Chester Arthur, James G. Blaine, and George Edmunds.
Naturally, Sherman was suggested as a unity candidate and implored to run. Blaine had cautioned him that this was almost inevitable. True to form, the 64-year old Sherman scoffed that only “a fool, a madman, an ass” would embark on a new career at his age, and that he would not sacrifice his personal life nor the happiness of his family, now settled in St. Louis and safely removed from the corrupting influence of Washington, for the presidency. He reminded Blaine that “their thoughts, and feelings should and ought to influence my action.”
Sherman also had no interest in submitting to the scrutiny of the press. “If I ran for President I’d wake up some morning and find all over the newspapers that I’d poisoned my grandmother,” he told another acquaintance. “Now you know I never saw my mother’s mother, but the newspapers would say I killed her and prove it.”
This did little to squelch the movement. As the convention commenced, telegrams from Chicago to St. Louis told the general that his nomination was all but certain, and he should prepare to answer his party’s call. On June 5, however, Sherman settled the matter.
Upon receipt of a wire warning that he must put aside his “prejudices and accept the presidency,” Sherman, without removing the cigar from his mouth, scrawled a response: “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”
He then handed the message to his son Thomas for delivery. The younger Sherman recalled that his father “then went on with the conversation he had been engaged in.”
In the intervening 127 years, in some form or another, those words, or at least the sane sentiments behind them, have reappeared whenever would-be chief executives put personal, professional or familial considerations ahead of the presidency.
Family, privacy, reluctance to submit to the media’s often destructive glare, contentment with a current station, and an honest uninterest in the job and its grueling responsibilities; this was enough to discourage Sherman over a century ago. It compels today’s crop of reluctant contenders to take a pass as well.
The presidency is no sinecure. Its pursuit often comes at a great personal cost. Many patriotic and public-spirited Americans have, understandably, avoided both.
Republicans need not worry: they will coalesce around a strong candidate who will be forged and tested by the nominating process. In the meantime, they would do well to realize that those who choose to watch from the sidelines have perfectly legitimate reasons for doing so.
In 1874, Sherman, preparing to resist one of the many calls for his candidacy, wrote “You may argue that none before has done such an act, then, if the case arises, I must be the first of a series.”
As it turns out, he was indeed the first of a series. To this day, as Republicans are being reminded, there exists the rare official who can distinguish between happiness and ambition, self-interest and self-preservation, and resist the temptation of temporary residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.