Martin D. Tullai teaches history at St.Paul's School in Brooklandville, Maryland, and is the author of The Presidency--Once Over Lightly and Speaking of Abraham Lincoln.
Ambrose Bierce described the presidency as "the greased pig in the field of American politics" in his Devil's Dictionary.
As we reflect on the 2000 presidential election, it might be instructive to note how those most knowledgeable about our highest office have characterized it. Political scientists and historians have often described this office as a grueling, burdensome, and stress- filled job.
Clinton Rossiter wrote about the president: "If there is any one thing about him that strikes the eye immediately it is the staggering burden he bears for all of us." Dorothy James has observed that "the sheer exhaustion of the office is obvious. It is literally a killing job whose pressures continue to mount." Thomas Cronin expressed his view with the words of John Steinbeck, who said: "We give the president more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear." Richard Pious' study of the presidency led him to conclude that "always there is the burden of office which takes its toll on the health and well-being of the incumbent."
Countering these views is the evaluation of George Reedy, who saw the presidency close-up as Lyndon Johnson's press secretary. He has said about the president's workload: "There is far less to the presidency, in terms of essential activity, than meets the eye. A president moves through his days surrounded by literally hundreds of people whose relationship to him is that of a doting mother to a spoiled child. Whatever he wants is brought to him immediately--food, drink, helicopters, airplanes, people, in fact, everything but relief from his political problems."
TROUBLE AND RESPONSIBILITY
Whichever perception of this office is accurate, it is interesting to note that many of those who sought and failed to win it ultimately took a dim view of it. This is what they said.
Henry Clay pursued the office relentlessly. His reputation as the "Great Compromiser" and the status accorded him as one of the "Great Triumvirate"--along with John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster--seemed to assure his success. However, after frustrating defeats in 1824, '32, and '44, Clay ended up, like William Jennings Bryan, a three-time loser. Although he said in a Senate speech, "I'd rather be right than be president," his disappointment must have been deeply felt. Alas, the unlucky Kentuckian refused the vice-presidential nomination in 1840. Had he accepted, he would have achieved his presidential goal because the president, William Henry Harrison, died after only thirty-one days in office. As it was, John Tyler became the first vice president to succeed to the highest office upon the death of a president.
America's first third-party candidate was William Wirt of Maryland, who ran for the Anti-Masonic Party in 1832. (Wirt's deep-seated opposition to Andrew Jackson induced him to accept the party's nomination.) Jackson's victory was a disappointment, but Wirt was nonetheless relieved that his fling with presidential politics was over. He said, "A culprit pardoned at the gallows could not have been more lighthearted."
Horatio Seymour, the governor of New York during the Civil War who opposed Lincoln's suppression of civil rights, was virtually forced to run for the presidency. Despite the importunings of his friends, Seymour five times declined to allow himself to be nominated, saying, "I have not the slightest desire to occupy the White House. There is too much trouble and responsibility and no peace." This resolve finally gave way, however, and he accepted the Democratic Party's call. So it was that in 1868 he challenged Ulysses S. Grant and ran a surprisingly close race even though he ultimately lost. Years later Seymour said, "The failure to insist on my declination of the nomination then was the mistake of my life."
William Tecumseh Sherman told Henry Halleck in 1864, "If forced to choose between the penitentiary and the White House for four years, I would say the penitentiary, thank you." And there was no relenting for him. Twenty years later he replied to the offer of the Republican National Convention: "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected."
Abraham Lincoln's son Robert Todd never was nominated for the highest office, although there was a presidential boom for him in 1884. He was reluctant to seek the office, in part because he felt it was a "gilded prison."
While the reactions of men on the periphery of the highest office provide some interesting historical sidelights, of more significance are the sentiments of those who won it. What have they felt about serving in this most awesome position?
It is a chilling thought to realize that one of the bullets which …