Profound Questions: Can I Be President?
Originally published March 23, 2010
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
Millard Fillmore's journey to the White House probably started when he threatened his boss with an axe.
Before that, his prospects were dicey. America promises that anyone can be president, but circumstance says most of us won't. Sometimes it's a moment of clarity that hammers home the second part -- waiting for the results of a pregnancy test outside a Wal-Mart bathroom at 3 a.m. -- but in most cases, it's just a matter of running the numbers in your teen years and knowing that the magic isn't going to happen. Millard was hill trash: raised in the dark forests of western New York, never leaving home, barely educated. The numbers weren't good.
But axes can do a lot to shape your future. Millard's dad apprenticed his 14-year-old son to a clothmaker. The job ended up being chore-heavy, not educational -- the 1814 equivalent of giving the intern all the photocopying -- and so Millard complained. When his boss tried to smack him around, Millard, who was chopping wood at the time, threatened to do some extreme chores, on his face. The boss backed down.
And Millard's life took off! Imagine the confidence you'd feel if you successfully resolved an office conflict with an axe. When you stand up for yourself, when you maximize the opportunities around you, when you brandish an edged weapon at Shirley from accounting, the world is there for the taking. Fillmore's rise wasn't meteoric, but from then on, his jobs improved, his commitment to his education never faltered, and his story becomes a series of career successes and advancements, culminating with Zachary Taylor -- a hero of four wars -- surrendering to bad cherries. Huzzah.
The point is, you have to believe in yourself, or this is never going to work. Confidence matters. Whether you get that confidence through armed confrontation with a supervisor or from the vast personal wealth your family allegedly acquired through opium trading (cough cough, FDR) or bootlegging (cough cough, Kennedy) is irrelevant. Just cowboy up.
You also have to want the job. I mean really, really, want the job. Because it sucks. The hours are awful, the work is stressful, and people on occasion shoot at you. This could also be true if you're working the register at Hot Topic. But as president, you have 300 million bosses, not just one with a straggly moustache and skinny jeans. Half of them demand stuff way outside your job description, and the other half wouldn't mind too terribly if you had some bad cherries of your own. So you need something to drag you to the top of the mountain -- motivation that makes you crave the abuse.
Like an inferiority complex! Pop psychology says LBJ (high school graduating class of 6) got a bit sullen around Ivy League types, and if you've ever been to the hill country around his ranch, you'd believe it -- when they say everything's bigger in Texas, they're including squalor. Part of Johnson's raison d'Congress was getting those hills electrified, and even today there are stretches of highway where it's not exactly clear if he succeeded. Combine humble roots, a twangy personality and ugly looks, dump them into a snobby pot like Washington, and you've got a recipe for success: a self-conscious guy who will work five times as hard just to make someone else choke on a silver spoon. That kind of motivation can get you over the hump.
(You also might want to impress or show up a dead or missing parent who always believed in you or never believed in you. That works too.)
So, you have confidence. You have motivation. You're ready to take the riding crop of freedom and whip the stallion that is America to jump the ... uh, chasms of fiscal dismay. All you need now is some (Chester A.) Arthurian flexibility:
Chester had a bit of a tough run. He was the collector for the Port of New York, which was a big deal in the days before income tax. He was fired, very publicly, by President Hayes as a crony of the "Stalwart" Republican faction -- big believers in the moral righteousness of cronyism -- which caused a bit of intraparty tension. To make nice in 1880, GOP leaders started asking Stalwarts to fill the vice presidential slot behind Garfield. They all closed ranks and refused ... except for Chester. "This is a higher honor than I have ever dreamt of attaining," quoth he, and not one year later a former political sacrifice was doing his dreaming on White House pillows.
What Chester knew, and you need to know, is that opportunities for greatness are limited. Just to get on the launching pad, you might have to stab a friend in the back, take one for the team, bite your tongue, or marry money. Even in your darkest hour, you have to keep your eyes open, and if you're hell-bent on sticking to your guns, chances are going to pass you by. I just hit the legal limit for idioms in a paragraph.
Don't get hung up on being rich, or a Freemason, or a white Protestant male. Those aren't requirements. Don't sweat it if you're ugly, or mean, or clinically depressed. Those aren't deal-breakers. Can you be president?
If you're even asking the question, you aren't going to be elected. Those of presidential timber dwell not on the "can," but believe in the "will." Time wishing is time wasted, and if you were going to be president, you wouldn't spend your idle hours wavering and reading columns about it. You'd be off running for governor, or volunteering in a soup kitchen, or setting up a marriage of convenience. Presidents make the most of their present and trust the future to work out.
Still, don't give up. You might not be a star. But if you're confident, motivated and flexible, even with your doubts, you can probably be vice president. And as Millard, Lyndon and Chester can attest, sometimes s*** happens. Sharpen that axe and go.