When I was a freshman in college, my American Government professor addressed everyone on the first day of class and said, "No one in this room will ever be president." He looked me right in the eye when he said it, so I immediately went to the library and started reading everything I could about presidents. My plan was to prove him wrong, become president and rub it right in his stupid face, because I had problems with authority figures telling me what I could and couldn't do and it just so happens that my particular strain of youthful rebellion manifested in furious trips to the library.
"I'm going to be better than FDR. That'll teach that stupid fucker."
I never stopped reading (or writing) about presidents, although I learned pretty early on that he was right: I would never be president. Not because I couldn't handle the work (I probably could), but because I wasn't fucking crazy. The most important lesson I learned in my book-filled and ill-advised quest to stick it to The Man was that the presidency is a job reserved for a special kind of crazy person, and it's our fault. Our current system is broken and dangerous, and it's driving away people who otherwise would make terrific presidents (people like me, probably). With election season upon us, I'd like to take this time to let us all know that we're doing things completely wrong.
Of the first 35 presidents, 25 of them died prematurely.
I don't mean they died tragically young, like "Oh, it wasn't Pierce's time, he had so much more life in him." I'm saying that there's an average life expectancy for everyone at every time in human history, and that most presidents -- by a crushing majority -- died prematurely. Presidents, on average, come from high socioeconomic backgrounds, and every single one of them has access to the best doctors, facilities and medical treatments money can buy, even after they leave the White House. Presidents, as wealthy men with the best doctors and medicine available, should theoretically live well into the above-average territory of their life expectancy. Yet 70 percent of them fell below average. If a car factory or meat plant or hospital in this country had a similar stat, where 70 percent of the employees weren't reaching their life expectancy, it would be shut down.
The presidency is a killing job. I'm not the first person to call it that, and I won't be the last (assuming at least one of you talks about this column with a friend). Writer Dorothy James Roberts says it's "literally a killing job whose pressures continue to mount," and even John Steinbeck once 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," and that doesn't even take into account the amount of vicious verbal and written attacks in the media we expect them to be able to take. We need them to be superheroes who will either thanklessly save us or accept the collective blame of an entire country. We want them to be a Batman that we can yell at if gas is too expensive.
We do this because we want the people attracted to the presidency to be the kind of people who can handle the job; we make it the hardest job in the country because we want the best of the best, but the bottom line is that there will never be a person who can really "take" the presidency. Physically. Being the president just takes a toll. Here's Lincoln in 1860, right before his first term, looking focused and powerful and rugged and the closest to handsome he'd ever been:
And now here he is in 1865, looking like a weak and tired skeleton:
Really look at the amount of wrinkles that got added to Lincoln's face in just four years. Look at how sunken in his eyes are. Speaking of eyes, look at how alive they were in the 1860 picture versus how empty and tired they were in '65. And, sure, it can be argued that Lincoln's circumstances are special because he was presiding over (arguably) the most important war in American history, but the presidency is still taking a physical toll today. Here's George W. Bush in 2000:
And now here he is after just five years of presidenting:
That's not just standard aging. Did your parents go from dapper to haggard in four years? Mine didn't (they are both still, in fact, dope as shit, but that's because they're not presidents). Hell, you can watch President Obama's hair turn gray right in front of you, as it started graying for the first time after just one year in office, something he attributes to the impossible amount of weight his job places on him.
Why It Needs to Change
Because it's a very important position and we're slowly killing the people we want to hold it.
The presidency, a job described by the men who have held it as "demanding and unrelenting" (12- to 18-hour days are not just expected but almost entirely unavoidable) and "overwhelmingly lonely," is a killing job, and we made it that way by giving our presidents the amount of power and responsibility and blame that we give them. If you saw an opening for a job where 70 percent of the employees died, there's no way you'd take it. You'd have to be crazy to take that job.
I'm not the only person with access to statistics, so I'm not the only one who knows how dangerous this job is (people have, in fact, written excellent books on the subject). Presidential candidates themselves, in fact, must be acutely aware of how detrimental and dangerous the position is, but they're still just saying "Yep, sign me up!"
Now, I don't want to say that all presidents are crazy, but only because that's the thesis of my upcoming book, and I don't want to spoil anything. I will say that even considering a run for office takes, above all other things, an ego that people like you and I will never understand. There are lots of tough jobs that people like you and I can look at and, even if we don't think we're capable of them, we can understand them on some level. You can probably guess what it's like to be a cop, or a doctor, or a lawyer, and figure out if you think you might be able to handle it.
But I sure as hell can't wrap my head around the presidency, because the president has a button in his office-house, and if he presses it, we send bombs to wherever he wants. I understand ambition and hard work and suit-wearing, but that's a level of personal power that I will never be able to intellectualize in any real way. I can't conceive of the pressures or the powers inherent to being the president, but some men think they can, and that, to me, is crazy.
The job impacts more than just the president, by the way. The vicious attacks hurled at Andrew Jackson's fragile wife while he was campaigning likely killed her. Jackson kept his wife, Rachel, sheltered from the horrible insults that were being thrown around by his opponents in the media. One day, she stumbled across some newspapers and read all of the ruthless attacks, had an anxiety attack and, shortly thereafter, died. There is not a single person (including and especially Jackson) who doesn't believe that the attacks were directly responsible for Rachel's breakdown and eventual death. If you want to be president, you might kill your wife, is the horrible moral to that story.
Why It Needs to Change
Because it's a very important job that can only attract a very specific breed of lunatic.
The kind of man who decides to run for president is the kind of man who can see how big and impossible the job is, a man who knows it's a death sentence that is more than likely going to cut his life short, a man who knows there's a possibility that merely by running he could destroy his wife, and he still says, "Yes. I can do that."
Do you understand that man? I don't.
In a modern campaign, the vice president serves exactly one function: balancing the ticket.
The presidential candidate of either party already knows that he (or he) is going to get guaranteed votes from their core group of registered party members. The people who attend Democratic rallies and load their cars up with Democrat stickers and identify, proudly and to anyone who is within earshot (but desperately trying not to listen), as a "card-carrying Democrat," are going to vote for President Obama in this election, but they were always going to vote for the guy (or guy) whose name was closest to the word "Democrat" on their ballot. Democrats have their core group of loyal and dependable voters, and Republicans have theirs (they're called "soft votes"). Every other category you can reduce a candidate to (race, gender, socioeconomic background, age) comes with its own set of soft votes. Not every woman will vote for a female candidate just because she happens to be a woman, but a small core group of women will, much in the same way that I'm in the soft vote core group of people who will vote for any candidate who talks openly about liking comic books.
But no one core group is big enough to elect a president, so elections live and die in the middle, with the moderates (and occasionally with outlier groups -- people who regularly never vote but make an exception for a particular candidate). What this means is that a vice president is chosen to balance the ticket and bring in their own soft votes.
In 2008, President Obama chose Joe Biden as a response to any moderates who were worried that Obama was too young and too inexperienced and too not-white to be president. John McCain chose Sarah Palin as a response to any moderates who were worried that McCain was a too on-the-nose visual representation of a party that was rapidly starting to look like and exclusively speak for old white men. Biden was old and white and smiled a lot. Palin was young and exciting and a woman.
Choosing Palin was a risky and bold move that ultimately resulted in embarrassing failure, but it was, briefly, a very smart move. In the election of 2008, Obama had so much buzz and momentum going that Democrats were already planning on how they'd redecorate the White House (they decided to stick with white). But then Sarah Palin showed up, and this random governor that no one had heard of was suddenly there to breathe life into the fading Republican Party. Eventually, we'd learn that she wasn't the strongest choice (and that is the nicest and most polite way I can describe that situation), but when she was first given the national spotlight, no one can deny that she was funny and refreshingly casual and downright charming. She gave speeches that were sharp and relatable and fun.
She did exactly what she was supposed to do. She balanced the Republican ticket and assured everyone that the GOP wasn't the Old White Guy Party, and she made some Democrats really scared.
The Palin gamble didn't work out, but it could have. If the GOP had done a better job training her to get her more prepared for the spotlight, or if the media hadn't so quickly fallen in love with highlighting her many flaws, or if the people who dug into her past to uncover previous political scandals weren't paying close enough attention, Palin would have just come off as a charming and likable ticket-balancing politician with folksy, down-home charm.
And then she would have been the vice president of America.
She's not, and that's very good, but the fact of the matter remains: She was in a position where she could have potentially been the vice president, which means she was in a position where she could have been the president. George H.W. Bush was admitted to the hospital with an irregular heartbeat, a condition that could have led to something benign and simple OR could have preceded a heart attack. If Bush had died as a result of these complications, Dan Quayle would have been president, a man who, at the time of Bush's surgery, had an approval rating of 19.
Why It Needs to Change
By choosing VPs based on how well they balance the ticket (that is, by focusing on playing good politics instead of picking good politicians), we're ensuring two things: 1) the chances that we'll ever get two brilliant political minds in the same White House at the same time are getting smaller every year and 2) in the event of an assassination or resignation, we're making someone next in line for the presidency despite the fact that they might be wildly unqualified for the position.
Sarah Palin and Swingin' Joe Biden were terrific ticket-balancers, but would either of them make a great president? We have no idea, because those just aren't things we're trained to look out for in election season.
Instead we'll hear that Biden and Obama probably want to rub each other's butts.
Changing the vice presidency would actually be tremendously helpful for everything on this list. If we gave the VP more power (Cheney actually wielded a ton of power as a VP, but upon taking over, Swingin' Joe immediately reduced the role of VP back to that of an adviser), there would be less work for the president himself, which would make the presidency less of a killing job (which means it would probably attract fewer lunatics). Additionally, turning the vice presidency into a position of power and importance means that we wouldn't have to look at potential VPs just based on how well they'd balance the ticket; we'd have to examine them with the same level of scrutiny we use when we vet presidents. No more Dan Quayles would be able to sneak into the White House because people would be paying attention.
It's probably impossible to change the current system at this point, but I'm still trying to tell a crabby, old American Government professor to suck it, so I can't entertain "probably impossible" as an option. I did my job by writing about this (which I believe makes me the John Adams of Cracked.com, a distinction I'm absolutely fine with, assuming that it makes Soren the tiny James Madison), and the rest is up to you. So, when you go into the voting booths this November, vote for ... this article, I guess?
Let's say that. Vote for this article this November.
Daniel O'Brien is Cracked.com's senior writer (ladies), and still secretly considers the presidency a backup plan if this whole Cracked thing falls apart (wildly influential American Government professor whose name escapes me).
Check out more from Dan in 5 Presidential Elections Even Dumber Than This One (Somehow) and The 5 Most Badass Presidents of All-Time.
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