As we all watch the hyper-ambitious candidates step up to run for President in 2016, I find myself hoping (naively) that there will be at least one whose character and morality have not been eroded by the rough-and-tumble, brutal process that is American politics. I have to admit, at this point, that I really don’t expect a truly sterling individual to risk their mortal soul by joining the fray.
As pessismism descends on me once again, memories of past elections rise to haunt me: Richard Nixon’s criminal shenanigans in 1972, Chris Christie’s Bridgegate skulduggery in 2013, and the Bush family’s corruption of the system all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to get W. the presidency in 2000.
I was trying to convince myself that each of these dark moments was an exception to the rule, that the United States has a basically honest political system, when I happened to read volume two of Robert A. Caro’s stunning biography of Lyndon Johnson (Means of Ascent). Caro does not spare the rod in documenting the means by which Johnson rose to power and ultimately the Presidency. In brief, he accuses Johnson of doing whatever it took to get what he wanted, whether it be lying, cheating, or stealing. Along the way, Caro introduces us to the man Johnson had to take down to get to the top…former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson…a man Caro describes as adamantly conservative and honest. Contrasted to Stevenson, Johnson looks like a two-bit hustler, willing to work any scam that will take him where he wants to go, including buying enough votes to make sure he wins.
Reading about Johnson’s foul deeds and Stevenson’s adherence to a readily defined sense of right and wrong, I was unprepared for Caro to admit, in the course of the story, that the upright, decent Coke Stevenson also bought votes and manipulated the process to ensure his own victory. That’s the way they did it in Texas, Caro says. So we’re left facing the reality that there was then, and likely now as well, no truly righteous “man” in Sodom, or Texas, or maybe anywhere in the U.S. political system.
Where does that leave us as the cast of characters is whittled down to one Republican and one Democrat and whatever other third party candidates push all the way to November, 2016? I’m really tired of falling back on the idea of voting for “the lesser of two evils,” as some of my friends say they’ve done in recent elections. But barring some miraculous transformation of the American political landscape, that’s probably the only option that will make any sense on election day.