Why Al - And Many Others - Choose Not to Run

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Mr. Young is a graduate student in history at Indiana University, founder and editor of the Progressive Historians group blog and a writer for the History News Service.

Whatever you think of Al Gore, it's hard to deny the sheer strength of his current popularity. With an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Nobel Prize to his credit in 2007 alone, the former Vice President and current climate-change crusader seems perfectly positioned to win the highest office in the land.

Yet, despite a vigorous effort to draft him into the Presidential race, Gore insists that he's "involved in a different kind of campaign." There's no doubt that Gore's reluctance to run is genuine, but the fact that someone so passionately committed to global change has little interest in a presidential bid is a bad sign for the health of our political system.

Gore is not the only prominent leader to forgo the presidency in recent decades. Twenty years ago, pundits jokingly referred to the weak Democratic presidential field as the "seven dwarfs" after several well-respected Democrats refused to run. In 1996, Gulf War General Colin Powell rejected an independent presidential bid despite polls showing him besting both major-party nominees. And this year alone, a stunning array of popular politicians -- from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to former NATO General Wesley Clark -- have rebuffed repeated efforts to draft them into the 2008 race.

It wasn't always this hard to persuade great leaders to run for president. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison confidently predicted that the United States would "obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society."

His fellow Founding Fathers practically fell over themselves to prove Madison right; in the nation's early years, every major statesman wanted to be president, even those clearly ill-suited for the job. John Quincy Adams, for example, an ornery career diplomat, was a far better secretary of state than candidate for elective office -- but that didn't stop him from running for, and winning, a single presidential term in 1824. When three-time loser Henry Clay declared that he'd "rather be right than President," his statement reflected disappointment rather than a lack of ambition.

In the decades thereafter, a few leaders resisted the pull of the presidency. Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman stunned Republicans in 1884 when he assured them that "if drafted, I will not run. If nominated, I will not accept. If elected, I will not serve."

But most politicians were only too happy to seek the White House. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, wanted to be president so much that he ran for a third term against his own hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. In 1910, Roosevelt explained that he cared little for "those cold and timid souls" who shy away from political combat. "The credit," he declared," belongs to the man who is actually in the arena."

Today, few leaders heed Roosevelt's advice. Our men and women "in the arena" seem more interested in running for the sidelines or, like Gore, in waging "a different kind of campaign." Roosevelt would wonder what kind of campaign could possibly be more important than a presidential one. In one sense, he'd be right: the amount of good Gore could do as a climate change activist would be dwarfed by what he could accomplish for the environment as President.

But leaders like Gore seek more than just political power; they covet even more what Roosevelt called the "bully pulpit" of the presidency -- the power to inspire and persuade, to change Americans' minds on issues of national import. Thanks to increasing voter apathy, this function of presidential leadership seems headed for extinction.

A poll last year showed that more than a third of Americans thought voting on the TV show "American Idol" was more important than voting for president, and, in fact, the winning "Idol" that year received more votes than George Bush did in 2004. The uncomfortable truth is that many Americans are more interested in what's sung on television than what's said in the White House; consequently, men and women with something worth saying are less likely than ever before to seek to occupy the Oval Office.

A century ago, leaders with passion and vision lined up eagerly for presidential runs because they knew that a victory would secure for them the rapt attention of the nation and, with it, the ability to change the United States for the better. Today, Al Gore realizes that if he wants "to change the way people think" about our global climate, he needs to look outside political office.

It's no wonder people have been disappointed in American political leaders for a generation. We can't expect our most visionary leaders to take to the presidential pulpit when no one's sitting in the pews.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/15/2007

On Jan. 17, 1993, during his pre-inaugural tour of Monticello with Bill Clinton, Gore paused in front of the busts of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette to say, "Who are these people?" Fortunately this classic moment was captured on tape, and you can see it at mediaresearch.org.

Maarja Krusten - 12/11/2007

Hi, Jeremy, yes, I understand why you don't feel that how someone reacts to indifference to his or her cause has much relevance in the political sphere. What I addressed is a side issue. I brought it up to show that people react in different ways to indifference: some decide to drop their advocacy, others change course, tactically or otherwise, and still others continue on the same path they started out on. I should have carved out that section of my response farom your main points better than I did in my hastily composed comments.

I'm glad to see you raise questions about why more candidates don't run, why advocates turn outside the government, and why some members of the electorate seem discouraged. The combative, disparaging tone often used in the public political sphere, including in the blogosphere (a tone which in some cases differs from that used in private among politicians of differing parties) makes it a difficult place to act as an advocate. Whereas in private life people co-exist or work things out by sometimes telling family members, friends, and co-workers, "we'll agree to disagree," in the political world, destruction of an opponent often appears to be the goal.

David Brooks, whose column in the New York Times I always read because he is a columnist who writes at times about why people act as they do, offers some observations on the current Zeitgeist in today's column in the New York Times.

Brooks notes that

"When Wall Street Journal/NBC pollsters asked voters what qualities they were looking for in the next leader, their top three choices were: the ability to work well with leaders of other countries; having strong moral and family values; bringing unity to the country. Those are cooperative qualities, not combative ones. They require good listening skills, openness and the ability to compromise.

It’s clear that voters are not only exhausted by the war, they are exhausted by the war over the war."


Do you see the turning away from government that you describe in your op ed as long lasting or momentary in nature? It's always hard to predict these things, I realize.

Jeremy Young - 12/11/2007

Maarja, thanks once again for your uniformly thoughtful comments. I don't disagree in the least that "reasons why people don't vote are quite varied and complex," and it's not my intent to boil down these issues to a single cause. However, I do think I'm raising here an issue that has been overlooked in our media of late, and one that's pretty important if we're to restore public interest in our government.

Your comment that "it's entirely possible to feel there is little public interest out there and to still want to pursue a cause" is, to me, irrelevant to the issue of Presidential candidacies. While some people run for President because they want to raise consciousness for an issue -- Tom Tancredo is probably the best example this cycle -- these individuals tend, like Tancredo, to be pursuing fringe issues with little acceptance in the mainstream. For more generally-accepted issues, as Al Gore so clearly demonstrates, political campaigns are no longer the method of choice for raising consciousness or promoting causes. In my view, that's a bad thing for our democracy -- it means that issue advocates pursue extra-governmental means, which renders our government both impotent and irrelevant and makes people even more apathetic about government officials (why should they listen to politicians about global warming when they could listen to Al Gore?).

Again, I'm not arguing that it's the only cause of political apathy in America, but it's certainly a big one.

Maarja Krusten - 12/10/2007

Interesting essay, I enjoyed reading it, you got me thinking again. I think there are many reasons why people do or do not run for office. And many reasons why people do or do not vote.

Some potential candidates decide not to run for family or personal reasons. (That was one of the reasons attributed to Colin Powell when he decided not to run.) Although politics always has had a rough and tumble side to it, candidates in the modern age undergo a great deal of scrutiny. They and their families are thrust into a spotlight that never seems to be turned off; some decide is not worth stepping under that spotlight in the first place.

Campaigning for President these days requires raising money in quantities no one would have dreamed of during the 19th and early 20th century. And getting your message out is very complicated. Not only do you have to decide you want to attain the office, you also have to select the campaign advisors and strategists who best can serve you in terms of fund raising, tactical moves, communications strategy, and so forth. Sometimes those advisors don’t get along or disappoint you in how they advise you and you have to decide whom to replace and whom to retain. Getting the mix right isn’t always easy. So there are a lot of personnel decisions to make, with all the associated headaches and second guessing.

I don't know how much perceived public indifference affects a decision not to run. It's entirely possible to feel there is little public interest out there and to still want to pursue a cause. As played out in part on HNN, I've done it with issues related to the National Archives – the last article I posted here on protecting the National Archives from bullying by former Presidents did not draw a single comment from a reader. Eh, that’s the way it goes, such things don’t stop advocacy if one feels the issues are worth airing out. You can pick out people all over the place who march along as committed advocates for one cause or another, relatively unfazed by setbacks and disappointments and a sense that people are engaged in other matters, not what you care about.

As for the American Idol thing, it's not a show I've ever watched so I'm not well equipped to comment on whether it is worth watching. TV often is a diversion, something people turn to in order to amuse themselves or to escape the cares and stresses of daily life. I don't assume that there's no overlap between those who vote and those who watch that and other shows.

I don’t recall seeing much data on why people do not vote. I’ve never missed a Presidential election since I became eligible to vote in 1972. The public is so diverse, it’s hard to know what is going on. From what I’ve seen on some messages boards, some people say they feel helpless. I’ve seen people write that they do not believe anyone is listening to them. Others give little consideration to issues outside their own home and neighborhood, their concerns center on family members, jobs, schools, etc. Members of that group probably re not inclined to log onto political message boards at all so it’s hard to tell what lies behind their lack of political engagement Still, my sense is that reasons why people don’t vote are quite varied and complex.