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    This George W. is no Washington

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    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000

    TALLAHASSEE -- It is poignant to recall that the process by which we still elect the president of the United States was designed with George Washington in mind. As the innkeeper's wife laments in the musical Les Miserables, "God almighty, have you seen what's happened since?"

    In Washington, the electors of 1789 recognized a man who had demonstrated superior courage, character and leadership in every possible way, and they chose him unanimously, as everyone at the constitutional convention had assumed they would.

    Few candidates since have been of corresponding stature. Neither Al Gore's nor George W. Bush's most dogmatic supporters would pretend that they are, or even that it matters. Providentially, the founders designed a redundant and resilient system.

    But they would be aghast, I think, to contemplate what's at stake in 2000, when we may be about to elect someone whose credentials owe so little to experience and so much to heredity. It is unlikely that George W. Bush would ever have been governor of Texas, let alone a nominee for president, if it weren't for whose son he is. Even his business successes, such as they were, depended rather too much on who his father's friends were.

    Bush is only the third presidential son ever to contend seriously for the presidency and would be only the second to get elected. The founders, with their phobia against kingly succession, did not intend dynasties.

    John Quincy Adams, son of the second president, had at least proved his own skills as an unusually able diplomat, as a senator and as secretary of state, in which role he was the author-in-fact of the Monroe Doctrine. But his one-term presidency -- to which he was elected by the House despite Andrew Jackson's larger pluralities in both the popular and electoral votes -- was a failure.

    Adams restored his reputation in the House of Representatives as a hero in the fight against slavery. But from that day to this, Robert A. Taft was the only other presidential son who made a serious run for it, and he was not nominated. Benjamin Harrison, a president's grandson, served one term in the White House. Robert Kennedy might have claimed his brother's mantle, but he was murdered. Ted Kennedy tried and failed. The Roosevelts were only cousins.

    Al Gore owes something of his own to heredity, his father having been senator from the state that sent the son to Congress, but at least he has had the opportunity to carry his own weight in national office. Prince George might very well prove himself, too, but he hasn't yet. Is the presidency the place for that much on-the-job training?

    In the Federalist, Alexander Hamilton described it much differently.

    "This process of election," he wrote, "affords a moral certainty that the office of President will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single state; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.

    "It will not be too strong to say," Hamilton went on, "that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue."

    Will we ever see such a utopian presidency? I don't think so. There is so much money in politics now that the presidency -- like many lesser offices -- is more about marketing than merit, more about sound bites than substance. There is far too much partisanship -- what a worried Washington called "faction." There are too many polls, and too many journalists who would rather write about who's going to win than who should. This is why good people like Richard Lugar don't run and why good people like Bill Bradley and John McCain don't win.

    . . . Speaking of money, the Center for Responsive Politics estimates that $3-billion will be spent on all of this year's campaigns, including off-the-books advertising by "independent" groups. Most of it is coming from special interests that have no scruples against demanding specific rewards. It is all perfectly legal.

    But when some well-meaning people set up Web sites to pair votes so that the Greens could qualify for matching funds without helped Bush defeat Gore, two states threatened to prosecute them. Only politicians are allowed to barter or sell votes. Try and find that in the Federalist.

    . . .Meanwhile, Florida House Speaker-designate Tom Feeney will have at least 60 freshmen to educate in the ways of Tallahassee. He's asked the James Madison Institute, a think-tank, to do it at private expense. Okay so far. But the institute proposes to help pay for it by selling pricey tickets to lobbyists (among others) for a dinner starring William J. Bennett. And part of the lure is an opportunity "to meet the new representatives in a social setting. . ."

    Access for sale. What a fine lesson for new legislators.

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