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Our World

September 29, 2012

Slate: Why we want presidents like LBJ

WASHINGTON — In Gore Vidal's movie "The Best Man," presidential candidate William Russell, played by Henry Fonda, faces a dilemma. He's going to lose the race unless he sacrifices his principles and smears his opponent, Joe Cantwell. The incumbent president lectures the timid Russell about the relationship between campaigning and governing:

Power is not a toy we give to good children. It is a weapon. And the strong man takes it and uses it. If you don't go down there and beat Joe Cantwell to the floor with this very dirty stick, then you've got no business in the big league. Because if you don't fight, the job is not for you. And it never will be.

That's not what Americans say they want in a president. When Gallup asked voters what they hoped for in a chief executive, they said honesty, consistency and good morals. They put those qualities above experience and sound judgment. The darker political arts — deception, flip-flopping, fakery, hypocrisy, and acting out of ambition rather than the public good — weren't on the list. If any of those labels ever stick to the candidate, they can disqualify him before he reaches Des Moines.

Voters claim to want someone like our second president. "Always vote for principle," John Adams said, "though you may vote alone . . . you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost." In a recent interview for "60 Minutes," Mitt Romney embraced the example Adams set when asked what presidential history has taught him. "We saw in [Adams] an individual who was less concerned about public opinion than he was about doing what he thought was right for the country," Romney said. It's a wonderful sentiment, but a politician following the "Adams model" will surely end up with plenty of time for sweet reflection — which is why Romney has probably found it necessary to change his public positions so often. Sweet reflection is nice — but not yet.

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