Pete Seeger wrote a cycle of life song 60 years ago, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”
The song starts, well, with flowers, then asks the same question about young girls, husbands, soldiers and graveyards. In the last verse, the graveyards yield flowers.
Leadership cycles, too. By any objective measure of the “cycle of candidates,” the pickings are slim — perhaps more slim that in any time in national history.
It’s depressing. Where have all the statesmen (or women) gone?
It should make us jealous of our parents (or grandparents) who had bona fide heroes like Dwight Eisenhower on the ballots.
The last American president with a decent resume was George H.W. Bush. He’d been a World War II pilot, successful in the private sector, in party operations, as a legislator and in several roles in the executive branch. Heck, he had eight years as vice president.
Whether we could read his lips or not, he knew his way around.
Bill Clinton and “W,” who followed Clinton, had been state governors — but neither really had remarkable records in Arkansas or in Texas. Arkansas even dumped Clinton once before Hillary decided she wouldn’t stand for that and coaxed him to run again.
And love him or loathe him, it’s beyond dispute that Barack Obama had no record of innovation or accomplishment. He was a good talker, but his record as a legislator in Illinois and as a member of the Senate was, at best, thin. The undisputed record shows that when a tough matter arose in the Illinois legislature, Obama voted “present.”
The guy with all the glitz on this year’s ballots is Donald Trump. He’s a self-confessed user and bully who has no center of gravity. He just likes mixing it up.
In his book, “The Art of the Deal,” Trump describes his ramrod, ham-fisted approach to everything as genetic. He says he listens to his gut, not researchers — and is motivated by victory, not money. “I don’t say this trait leads to a happier life, or a better life, but it’s great when it comes to getting what you want.” He adds that his competitors in New York real estate are “vicious,” and writes, “I happen to love to go up against these guys, and I love to beat them.”
There’s nothing wrong with having a president dedicated to victory, but Trump is the guy who walks into a roadhouse looking for someone, anyone to fight — because he likes to fight.
Now, if the holes in the Titanic were plugged, the giant ship refloated and Hillary Clinton’s baggage was put aboard, it would sink again — no iceberg needed. Right to the bottom.
Her qualifications are that she is smart, that she was first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States and that it’s time for a woman to be president. But there are lots of smart women. Carly Fiorina, for example, is plenty smart.
Clinton did serve as a senator from New York where she didn’t live and as Secretary of State for Obama, who was smart enough to know she would stifle their differences if he put her in a cabinet post. But America’s stock in terms of overseas relations didn’t exactly soar during her tenure.
And, objectively, Clinton has found herself apologizing, backtracking or explaining more “misstatements” than anyone in public life. Her core mission is to be elected. It would validate the former Walmart director as “worthy” in her own view (which is the view that matters to her).
Bernie Sanders? An idealist who wants to wrest the unfairness out of capitalism by, well, being unfair to those who have, in his view, too much money. He has been making the same full-on plea for full-on wealth redistribution for generations, but he isn’t clear on what would motivate people to seek wealth in a society if government would immediately take it.
Ted Cruz may strike some people as presidential, but his record is full of snarky and mean. Marco Rubio is carefully positioning himself as the next Ronald Reagan, but it’s not clear America wants another Ronald Reagan.
And then there are the rest. John Kasich is an insider who happens to be running when that’s a liability. Ben Carson is a nice guy.
The best presidents in our history didn’t come from a single mold. Pretty different in terms of their lineage, temperaments, philosophies. What each possessed, though, was the ability to inspire.
America has done best when our leaders coax us to listen to our better angels.
Is any of that happening?
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.