The Power of Presidential Transformation

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A Democrat sneered the other day that George W. Bush's only accomplishment before the age of 40 was to quit drinking.

Suppose that were true. Would it matter?

Harry Truman seemed a dismal specimen right into middle age — a failed haberdasher condemned to live with his dreadnought mother-in-law, trapped in a W. C. Fields movie. Truman hardly looked much better by the time Franklin Roosevelt's death made him president in 1945. Yet he did pretty well in the office.

Conversely, Herbert Hoover was a gleamingly successful citizen right up until the fall of 1929, when his reputation followed the economy downward in a disastrous spiral.

And so on. The presidency retains a mystique of transformation. The office is still a variation on the American theme of new beginnings. It is an existential job. Americans might actually find it attractive if George W. Bush's only accomplishment by age 40 had been to quit drinking.

It's a slightly perverse logic, but Americans sometimes have a political impulse to play hunches, to cast the part contrary to conventional expectation, and to grant immunities even when they might seem irresponsible. It's the impulse that, in part, explains Ronald Reagan's success. With the economy doing well, voters may now feel it is safe to indulge the impulse.

Previous failure does not predict a failed president. Previous success does not predict a successful president. That's part of the interest of a presidential election — the uncertainty about what transformations, good or bad, may occur in the winning candidate when he becomes president. Perhaps no transformation at all will come to pass. Chester A. Arthur will remain Chester A. Arthur, and there is nothing you can do about it. But beware. Lewinsky or no Lewinsky, the American presidency still inspires some reverence — an awe that may work in complex ways. Voters may put an apparent doofus in the White House, yet in their awe, may trust that the presidency's sacramental, transformative powers will, so to speak, transubstantiate the doofus. Historical memory teaches that a base metal like Harry Truman, and therefore maybe even George W. Bush, might yet turn into gold — or anyway, be raised to unexpected, unpredicted stature. It's nothing more mysterious than democracy following its nose.

The hope for such alchemical results may originate in an anti-elitist assumption and an attractively irrational impulse to stick a thumb in the eye of power — the underlying reason, for example, for Jesse Ventura's election as governor of Minnesota, or, again, for Truman's victory over the smug little man on the wedding cake in 1948.

Gore's people should underestimate neither this dynamic nor the extent to which (contrary to stereotypes) their man has come to seem the candidate of the overbearing — big government, big unions, big minorities, big money, big Hollywood, big hype, and a million moms. The combination may work for Gore. But in a screwy way, George W. Bush may profit from a counterintuitive inclination of Americans to associate him with the little guy.

Of course, the Democrat who made that crack in the first paragraph will snort at the idea of George W. Bush — scion of old WASPs, Galahad of tort reform, living fat on Texas oil money and "presiding" now and then over lethal injections — as a hero of the anti-elitist masses. But that will be the Democrat's mistake.