Everyone over a certain age remembers at least some of the strains, tragedies and transitions of national life in the 1990s: The first Baby Boomer president; the first feminist First Lady; the eruption of the digital age; the federal siege against a Waco encampment that killed 75 cult members and their leader; the suicide of White House counsel Vince Foster, a longtime Clinton family friend; the affairs and lawsuits and investigations –Whitewater, Travelgate, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Monica Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr, impeachment.
Look it up, kids. Some of it was fake or unproven or hyperpartisan, but some of it was real. Clinton fatigue cannot be dismissed as exaggerated political hypochondria.
Yet it would be unfair to count that as a mark against Hillary Clinton as she bids to put another Clinton in the White House. Every exhausting presidency is exhausting in its own way, as Leo Tolstoy would have put it. And make no mistake, most presidencies are exhausting, or would be if they were happening now.
Some presidents get themselves into trouble and some are confronted with trouble. Some trigger agitation just by being who they are — their generation, their race, maybe their gender. We no doubt notice it more now because of the Internet, social media and cable TV. Countless historic episodes would have consumed the public and “broken Twitter,” had it existed:
Hear people are throwing tea off ship into Boston Harbor, some dressed as Indians. Anyone got video? #taxationwithoutrepresentation 16 Dec 1773
South Carolina secedes from #USA. #StatesRights #Confederacy #LetsDoThis 20 Dec 1860
Black Thursday, Black Monday, now Black Tuesday. Time to rethink #capitalism. 29 Oct 1929
Roosevelt declares war on Japan. #PearlHarbor #DateWhichShallLiveInInfamy 8 Dec 1941
Shots fired at @JFK motorcade in Dallas & I saw president crumple in car. Tell me this didn’t happen. 22 Nov 1963
BLOCKBUSTER REPORT: 23-YEAR-OLD, FORMER WHITE HOUSE INTERN, SEX RELATIONSHIP WITH PRESIDENT 17 Jan 1998
That last is a real headline from the Drudge Report. You can imagine the impact of this and many other moments large and small — Selma! Watergate! Vietnam! The Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction! — in today’s media environment. The George W. Bush presidency was exhausting enough just on cable, from the deadlocked 2000 election to the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War and the financial collapse.
The Obama presidency has been exhausting as well, with its economic challenges, racial tensions and the demands of a destabilized world on edge over terrorism. The next president will face some of the same problems and could ratchet up the fatigue factor with more interventions around the globe. If it’s former Florida governor Jeb Bush, add Bush family fatigue to list — particularly if he uses his brother’s foreign policy as his template. Many of the Republican candidates-in-waiting are, in fact, talking about the potential need for U.S. “boots on the ground” in the Middle East — a surefire path to an exhausting presidency.
For whoever wins, add polarization amplified and escalated by niche media. Stanford psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys, in a blog post at The Washington Monthly, wrote that he was nostalgic for the presidency of George H. W. Bush — “the last president whom you could just casually talk to strangers about. They might like or dislike his policies, but their head would not explode at the mention of his name.” He wonders if that attitude will return as Baby Boomers — with their 1960s culture-war intensity — exit the scene, or if the exploding-head environment is here to stay.
I’m going with Door Number Two, much as it pains me. It is tempting to hope for a leader so charismatic, with such powers of persuasion, that we can move into a less angry, more constructive future. But has that person ever existed on Earth? Even George Washington might have had trouble leading amid armchair tweeters second-guessing his military strategy and making snarky cracks about his teeth.
And it’s not like we are heading into an era of good feeling. We appear to be leaving some cultural battles behind, such as gay marriage, but we may never come to a consensus on abortion and it may be quite a while before the waters calm on immigration or race-related issues. The black cloud of income inequality hangs over all of this, meanwhile, hobbling upward mobility as politicians argue over remedies. Meanwhile, oppression, attacks, beheadings and other barbarities continue in the Middle East.
All of this will afflict the next president, along with the usual banal crossfire endured by chief executives these days (those mom jeans, that selfie, is he demeaning his office? That flight suit, that Mission Accomplished banner, whose idea was that? And shouldn’t fill-in-the-blank play a little less golf, take a little less vacation?). Before you know it we’ll be tired. No matter who wins.
Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Photo: Mark Nozell via Flickr