Which presidents of the United States have done a job of work? This little survey is limited to those born in the 20th century. Before that, everybody worked.
Let’s start with our present leader. He has never lifted a shovel or driven a truck or had to make a payroll. He has never grown a tomato or convicted a criminal. He has never coached a team or bagged groceries. He has never cleaned a toilet for minimum wage, never hammered a nail for a serious purpose, never made a cold call on a customer trying to sell encyclopedias, never climbed a ladder to paint the third story of a house. He has never sat in a cubicle and processed forms or had to worry about his next evaluation. He’s never done anything but politics. His wife has more work credentials.
Moving backward in time, the same description applies to Presidents Clinton, Johnson, and Kennedy. LBJ did teach school for a time while waiting to get a political appointment. Outside of that, none of them did anything but politics. JFK used his family money to buy offices, while LBJ and Clinton used their offices to buy money, but otherwise their careers were remarkably similar: unreflective progressivism mixed with hedonism and reckless use of power.
Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan worked—and worked hard. Despite the puerile attempts at jokes by the chattering classes about B-movies and inherited peanut farms and failed lemon groves, each of these men knew what it was like to work long days with the fate of their family dependent on their efforts. (A note on Nixon here: Anyone who has grown up in a marginal family business knows how physically and emotionally exhausting it is to scrape along day after day for 12 or 14 hours and regularly get taken back three steps for every two you take ahead. What later critics called his political paranoia may have been the reflection of a realistic understanding of how conditional our lives are. My friend M. Stanton Evans said not long ago that he didn’t like Nixon until Watergate; I never really liked Nixon. I am of a generation that had him as a constant political presence from our earliest public memories—the Hiss trials—until literally the day of his funeral. After reading his memoirs, I did, however, come to appreciate that Nixon, whatever his flaws, was superior to his enemies.) Family stores and farms and acting are honorable jobs of work, and they teach what all work teaches: There are things that can and can’t be done. President Carter’s so-called malaise speech may turn out to be one of the most prescient and prophetic political speeches of the last century.
The Presidents Bush fall somewhere in the middle. Born to the purple, both have been willing to work for productive and public reasons. Unlike the nonworkers, they seem to be honorable family men and Christians, and at least George Walker knows how to run a chainsaw and sit a horse, which I’m sure President Obama could do (being young and athletic), but I wouldn’t want to be the one to teach him. Their terms in office befuddled their party and the country in general. You can’t have a New World Order abroad and an Old World Order at home.
What’s the point of this superficial and rather crude exercise? Republics are supposed to draw from honest and hard-working citizens to govern on the basis of practical experience. All governments are to one extent or another oligarchies, but republics, when they have been successful, have avoided permanent bureaucracies and wealth-driven political classes. That venal, ambitious politicos like Lyndon Johnson could rise to the top in our particular republic has always been a real possibility (think Aaron Burr), but that what P.J. O’Rourke once called “sewer trout” (“Oh, how those sewer trout swim upstream!”) like the Kennedys would become enthroned was not so predictable. Once that happened, however, the chances of us ever again getting good men with gravitas to run for office were severely diminished. We are reduced to a political class of rulers.
Such rulers do not value work; they value power. Robert Taft once said, “You can’t outdeal” the New Deal, and that is the most profound political insight of the last 75 years. When work is replaced by deals the political system of a republic no longer has any meaning beyond electing and appointing dealmakers. Under the circumstances, the best that we can do is a Carter or a Reagan, and that ain’t quite good enough.
My mother-in-law said to me many years ago, “What would we do, if we didn’t have work to do?” How can dealmakers think clearly about creating jobs or reforming healthcare or restructuring education when they have never been on an assembly line or cleaned a bedpan or listened to a heartbroken girl who has just failed an exam? Work, for the most part, is growing stuff, making stuff, and fixing stuff. Our dealmakers know only how to pass stuff around, and they call it an “economy.”
Ted Kennedy, the (perhaps exaggerated) story goes, was shaking hands early one morning at a factory shift-change when he was first running for the U.S. Senate. A grizzled old worker, grasping his soft hand, said to him, “You ain’t worked a day in your life.”
“I know,” Kennedy replied, “isn’t it great?”
And then he spoke for the “working classes” for half a century.
The jobs that people like to do—growing, making, fixing—are so far beyond the understanding of our present political class (and the vast majority of our chattering classes) that it seems all right to export them or eliminate them and still insist that we have an economy. John McCain, in the incident that convinced me that he should never, ever govern, once offered $50 per hour to anyone who would agree to pick lettuce for an entire growing season. He was certain that illegal Mexicans were the only people in the world who would pick lettuce at any price. When about 6,000 men and women applied for the job in 24 hours, he dropped the subject.
The dealmakers are of course interested in expanding the dependent classes as much as possible. That’s another story, but, in the meantime, when President Obama starts talking about “creating jobs,” grab your wallet and run the other way as fast as you can.
This article first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.