Music Cues: When I Grow Up...
December 2, 2000
One measure of America's democratic majesty used to be the boast that in America any young boy or young woman can grow up to be president. Today how many want to? More might dream about growing up to be Bill Gates. It's not our present electoral irresolution that sets off this thought this week, it's federal elections in Canada. Prime Minister Jean Chretien's liberals were returned to power there, and as many commentators were delighted to note that Canadians managed to count 13 million ballots in four hours without filing any lawsuits.
But it's too easy to gaze up with envy at Canada's articulate parliamentary leaders and orderly elections. Our nations are related, but differ considerably in the size of our expectations. Canada is vast and diverse, but it has rarely considered itself the last best hope of democracy. The late Pierre Trudeau was perhaps the only prime minister who has ever been regarded as any kind of compelling national emblem, but he was derided as an
American-style leader, which was no compliment. Most of the other prime ministers have been amiably regarded as reasonably competent men or women elected to represent a set of views. Except for the question of Quebec's sovereignty, Canadian prime ministers have rarely been expected to save their union, destroy tyranny or set the world aright.
But those kinds of weighty expectations may no longer be thrown onto the shoulders of American presidents. The Cold War is over, and America seems to loom over all militarily, economically, culturally; that view may be wrong, it is certainly parochial. But America's sense of hazard right now seems small. Presidents don't seem needed to break trails or build nations, but keep the motor running. Of course, presidents still have plenty of power.
They can bomb chemical plants in foreign countries, pardon federal prisoners and can probably appear on national television anytime they like, even more than Bill Cosby. But huge policy initiatives are probably politically impossible, unpopular, maybe even unnecessary. It's not unintelligent for Americans to judge that they may not need a Roosevelt, Franklin or Teddy, in the White House at a time when a bull moose would mostly chew up the Oval Office furniture. Maybe that's why we nominate the candidates we complain about later.