As the US presidential campaign inches closer to Election Day, a few more people are paying attention, and listening to the alleged issues. Among the campaign's sillier questions is whether the ideal president ought to have a “business” background.
On this point, Mitt Romney is always cited as potentially the first businessman-president since Herbert Hoover. This contention overlooks our two recent oil-business presidents, and it snubs Harry S Truman, who took stabs at several businesses. Truman's most famous enterprise was a Kansas City haberdashery — although it went belly-up in two years. Truman's clothing store was just as much a “business” as Hoover's mining empire and Romney's career as a private-equity barracuda.
In the end, Truman the lousy businessman, proved an admirable president. On the other hand, while George W. Bush's bumbling career in the Texas oilfields matched Truman's mercantile misadventures in Missouri, all we got from that was a president lousier than he was an oilman.
There is no trend here.
Since Hoover, five eventual presidents were lawyers turned politicians, starting with FDR, including a string of three in a row — JFK, LBJ, Tricky Dick — and ending with Bill Clinton. Also: two oilmen, a general, a peanut farmer, Harry the haberdasher, a community organizer, and an actor who never got the girl at the end of the movie.
Still with no trend evident, the answer to the silly question is: Don't rely on a resumé to handicap the presidency. Nor does a CV indicate how a guy will perform in office. Who, after all, would have expected our most pacifist president, Woodrow Wilson, to lead the nation into World War I? Or Richard Nixon, the pinko-baiting blacklister of the 1940s, to usher Red China back into respectability?
We get a true measure of our leaders only in retrospect. Looking back, we see that neither Truman nor Lyndon Johnson were as bad as we thought on their last day in office. On the other hand, the accomplishments of John F. Kennedy (because of his aborted potential) and Ronald Reagan (whose lingering legacy is trickle-down economics) seem destined to keep diminishing over time.
Reagan, however, had a significance that transcends laws, treaties and policies. He was the rare transformational president who — largely by force of his personality — virtually reversed the magnetic field of American politics.
One of my pet theories is that the national political conversation flows, for decades, in one direction or the other. For example, after Reconstruction, the national discourse remained reliably conservative for about 50 years. Despite populist uprisings, a Socialist movement among laborers, and Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt who tried to rein in the power of Big Money, most Americans recognized a status quo in which a small, moneyed aristocracy called the shots in society and politics. This ruling class held sway tenaciously until finally discrediting itself, spectacularly, in the Crash of '29.
However, the oligarchy's collapse didn't guarantee the liberal epoch that followed. In places like Germany and Italy, a disgraced conservative elite gave way to an even more conservative elite who used populism as pretext for tyranny. America's next leader was also populist, but genuinely so. Franklin D. Roosevelt undertook a program of redistributing political power downward and outward, while carrying on a conversation — really a monologue — with the American people that sold his radical program. FDR's charm didn't turn the United States into a broadly liberal nation overnight. But the New Deal, the Allied victory in World War II, and post-war programs like the Marshall Plan and the GI Bill reinforced a consensus among Americans that they could trust government to hear their voices and to do the right thing, most of the time.
This liberal tide didn't begin to ebb until the post-Vietnam War crises that marked the 1970s. Even then, the flow might not have turned conservative without the guidance, charisma, and rhetorical gifts of Reagan, FDR's alter ego.
Reagan steered America's conversation sharply to the right, and it has remained conservative ever since, almost drowning Bill Clinton in the process. Barack Obama's sudden rise in 2008 suggested to many observers that a progressive reversal might be imminent. Obama certainly fulfilled one prerequisite. His eloquence and likeability are in the same class with FDR and the Gipper.
Nevertheless, as the last four years demonstrate, a 180-degree shift in the political voice of 300 million Americans is no small feat. These magnetic-field reversals erupt generations apart and take more than a decade to truly manifest. It's conceivable that the 2012 election — if Obama wins — might be seen, years from now, as the tipping point of such a change.
Years from now, we'll know for sure.