Jefferson: The Reluctant Politician

Some individuals ache to become President of the United States. The most notable recent example was William Jefferson Clinton, who freely declared that he had wanted to be the President of the United States from the time he was 16 years old. Back in 1796, John Adams couldn’t stand the idea that he might not succeed the first President George Washington. “I am Vice President,” he wrote. “In this I am nothing, but I might be everything.” Adams actually called himself the “heir apparent,” which could not have done his reputation for being a crypto-monarchist any good. He rightly recognized that Hamilton (it is always Hamilton) was working behind the scenes to undermine his candidacy.

Theodore Roosevelt not only wanted to be President, but virtually assumed that he would find a path to the White House. He did not expect that his entry would be through the back door, in September 1901, following the assassination of President William McKinley, but as he told his closest friend Henry Cabot Lodge, it wouldn’t do any good to be morbid about it. The Presidency is the Presidency.

Lyndon Johnson wanted to be President in every fiber of his being. According to his masterful biographer Robert Caro, being JFK’s vice president felt so marooned, impotent, isolated, and humiliated that his life-force actually seemed to be ebbing away. Stifling an ambition the size of, well Texas, nearly killed LBJ. On November 22, 1963, he too entered through the back door, and he made the most of it. Unlike Roosevelt, who paid lip service to the fallen McKinley’s policies and then cheerfully took the United States in his own strenuous direction, LBJ attempted to fulfill what he thought were JFK’s intentions, including in Vietnam, where he bogged down in a quagmire (Walter Cronkite’s term) what otherwise might have been one of the greatest presidencies in American history.

Then there are the perennial also-rans. William Jennings Bryan ran five times for President, three as the official nominee of the Democratic Party. He came closest to winning in 1896—the year of the Cross of Gold Speech—at 47% of the vote. Former Minnesota governor Harold Stassen became the running joke of perennial candidacy in the mid-twentieth century. He ran a whopping twelve times. More recently the Ohio crank Lyndon LaRouche ran seven times. Henry Clay ran five times, as did the socialist Eugene Debs.

Hillary Rodham Clinton only ran twice for President, first against Obama (in the primaries), then against Trump (in the general election of 2016), but it has become clear in the last few months that she cannot stand the idea that her nation rejected her, this time in favor of a man who is widely perceived to be wholly unfit for higher office. She cannot stop trying to find a narrative that will let her sleep at night. But at some point she will have to find the peace of knowing that wanting desperately to be President doesn’t necessarily get you there, and your superior qualifications don’t necessarily translate into voter approval.

Most people who become President are propelled by gigantic ambition. In the last half century, successful candidates have had to hurl themselves at the White House in what amounts to a 400-day marathon of sleeplessness, hoarse throats, bad food, verbal gaffs, dirty tricks, manufactured controversies, pointless formal debates, daily begging for funds for hours on the phone, staff infighting, and a standard stump speech in which they bark out the same platitudes, bromides, and clichés tens of thousands of times before they either do or do not win the Presidency. Mephistopheles told Dr. Faustus that he could have what he most wanted—knowledge, wealth, power, women—if he would just sign a contract selling his soul in exchange for profound success. In our era, by the time anyone gets into the Oval Office, his soul is pretty ragged. Who’s the last truly dignified candidate for President? Perhaps Barack Obama comes closest.

So here’s Thomas Jefferson, the Sage of Monticello, who quietly declared that he did not really want to be President. He would rather be growing his rutabagas at his beloved Monticello, writing exquisite letters in perfect penmanship, drawing lists and grids and queries on draft paper, dabbling with his miniature set of hand tools, reading a great deal of mostly non-fiction, entertaining his friends with perfect understated Virginia hospitality, preferring Homer and Herodotus and Virgil and Varro to the whole tribe of grasping politicians that the world perennially throws into the public square. John Adams thought that Jefferson was only pretending to be the American Cincinnatus, that he was, in Adams’ sarcastic term, “honeycombed with ambition.” But I believe Jefferson was essentially—perhaps not always literally—telling the truth: that he knew that being President is a kind of circus noir—a place where calm of mind and a reputation for quiet integrity go to die. Jefferson said prophetically, "No man will ever carry out of the Presidency the reputation which carried him into it."

Many of the best have been carried out of the highest office in a casket: Lincoln, Garfield, Wilson, FDR, Kennedy, and, in essence, Lyndon Johnson, who never recovered from the pounding his soul took between 1966 and 1969. Well more than half have limped out of the White House in personal and political disarray. Only a handful have grown in office.

Jefferson wasn’t one of them. He was tired by the time he returned to Monticello in March 1809. Once there, he returned to his classical reading, his life as an enlightened gardener, his perfect epistles, his grandchildren, and the single most important woman of his life, his daughter Martha.

Jefferson belongs at the Zen end of the spectrum, along with George Washington, James Garfield, and perhaps a few others. It is impossible to think that an individual who actually has his or her ambition under control, and who prefers books and turnips to the “splendid misery” of power, can ever again become the President of the United States. One of the best reasons to love Thomas Jefferson is that his two successful terms as President don’t get the slightest mention on his tombstone. The best achievements of his life lay elsewhere.