Friday, October 12, 2012

What America needs is a Jefferson Smith

A friend commented at lunch today that you’d have to be mad to run for the presidency, given the enormous challenges facing whoever occupies the Oval Office. That prompted a discussion about why anyone would put themselves forward for the job. Vaulting ambition? A naked lust for power? Unbridled conceit?
That in turn led us to consider the possibility that anyone wanting to become president must, by definition, be unfit to hold the office. In the same way as Groucho Marx said he wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member, perhaps no sane, well-balanced person would want to be president of (or even risk living in) a country that would elect him.

We also recalled Yossarian, the US air force bombardier in World War II who was the central character in Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch-22. Yossarian was desperate to be grounded on the basis that he was mentally disturbed; but the fact that he wanted to be grounded (for the eminently sensible reason that he didn’t like people trying to shoot him out of the sky) was taken as proof that he was, in fact, perfectly sane. Follow that line of reasoning, and the only person who could safely be elected president is someone who doesn’t want the job.
In the great Frank Capra movie Mr Smith goes to Washington, the naïve, honest Jefferson Smith (played by James Stewart) is elected to the US Senate at the behest of corrupt interests who assume he can be easily manipulated, but in the end Smith’s wholesome idealism wins out. Where’s Jefferson Smith now that America needs him?

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