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Presidential prize: 'Splendid misery'

Who in their right mind would really want one of the most thankless jobs in the world?

Posted: Wednesday, November 22, 2000

WASHINGTON -- A stroke of the pen can transform wilderness into a national monument. A wish -- perhaps to play golf at midnight, as Bill Clinton recently did -- is someone's command. Unmatched power and endless perks await the new president.

Yet to judge from all the bellyaching by past occupants of the office, it's the most thankless job imaginable, next to that of a Florida vote counter.

''A splendid misery,'' Thomas Jefferson called it. George Washington said it was like going to his execution.

''Poor Ike -- it won't be a bit like the Army,'' Harry Truman commented in turning the office over to the warrior who freed Europe.

But for all that, presidents have tended to be vastly ambitious men, more driven than their sad words describe.

Al Gore and George W. Bush have already had a taste of the task, one as vice president, the other as son of a president. They know something of the incalculable burdens of the Oval Office and the rigid security constraints one of them will have to live under day to day.

That they would go for the prize anyway makes perfect sense to someone who famously didn't.

''You do it because it's worth all of that,'' Mario Cuomo said Tuesday. ''That's the answer.''

The former Democratic New York governor, like Republican Colin Powell after him, played impossible to get when so many people wanted him to run for president. Cuomo said he could not pass the test Bush and Gore must have passed -- to be able to look around you and see no one better.

''The most logical reaction would be, 'Wow, I wonder if I'm good enough to do that,''' he said.

A number of presidents had such a reaction, then got over it.

''Just think of such a sucker as me as president,'' Abraham Lincoln said two years before winning the 1860 election. Dwight Eisenhower, fresh from World War II victory, said the first time his name was mentioned in the same breath as the presidency, ''I thought it completely absurd.''

After a time, the cry of, ''Who, me?'' can become one of, ''Me, and no one else.''

All for what?

''We wear him out, use him up, eat him up,'' the writer John Steinbeck said in the 1960s. ''And with all this, Americans have a love for the president that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.''

There are compensations.

They'll play ''Hail to the Chief'' whenever Bush or Gore, as commander in chief, walks into a public room.

The pay is doubling, to $400,000, still a pittance compared with a Fortune 500 executive, but not bad by government standards -- $175,400 for a vice president, $115,345 for a Texas governor.

The president has large and small planes at his disposal, each taking the name Air Force One when he boards.

Even with such coddling, they grumble.

''My God, what is there in this place that a man should ever want to get in it?'' asked James Garfield, who served only 199 days, 80 of them after being fatally wounded by an assassin's gun in 1881.

''I'll be damned if I am not getting tired of this,'' said William Taft in 1910.

It has been noticed, one presidency after another, how the person has ended it looking much older than when he went in -- older than the four or eight years that had passed.

But Cuomo, with much mirth, said his marriage has had the same effect on him and he's not looking to get out of it now.

And if it all seems too overwhelming, comfort might be taken in the demeanor of Clinton, who doesn't want to let go and seems hardly worn down, just like Teddy Roosevelt, who burned off post-presidential steam with a 75-day, 1,200-mile African hunting safari.

Or, comfort in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, who had the job longer than anyone.

''The first 12 years,'' he said, ''are the hardest.''



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