Mark Shields: National epidemic of self-esteem

Mark Shields

A half-century ago, Russell Baker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, disclosed to his readers the existence of the mysterious kingmaker he called “The Great Mentioner,” who alone had the power to determine the handful of ambitious politicians who were ever lucky enough to get “mentioned” as potential presidential candidates.

If, and only if, you were first and widely “mentioned” in the press and by leading political figures, you could then credibly begin to launch a presidential campaign. Nobody, of course, ever met the mythical Great Mentioner, but nobody in presidential politics doubted his influence.

But this is 2015, when no self-respecting presidential candidate waits to be “mentioned.” Today the only essential prerequisites for a White House run are a surplus of ambition and self-regard. In fact, to look at the already crowded 2016 Republican field is to realize that our nation must be experiencing an epidemic of self-esteem.

Take the case of the generally sensible Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who in 2012 was vetted to be the vice presidential nominee. Even though he had gone widely unmentioned, Portman in December announced he would not run for president but would instead run for re-election to the Senate. This is too bad, because Portman could have become the very first GOP presidential candidate to support same-sex marriage.

Here is a partial list of the distinguished Americans who have been “mentioned” by close friends, press secretaries or, in some cases, themselves for president: Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida; Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio, Mike Pence of Indiana, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Scott Walker of Wisconsin; former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Rick Perry of Texas, George Pataki of New York and Jeb Bush of Florida. It has long been axiomatic in Washington that every day, when shaving (or, maybe now, when putting on lipstick), a senator sees a president in the mirror. Governors’ mansions must now have the same mirrors.

Jeb Bush’s supporters may want to emphasize that no Republican ticket has won the White House in the past 88 years that did not have on it either a Nixon or a Bush — and there’s no Nixon on the current scene.

Let us not forget former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania or former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson, a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon who apologized for seeming to compare supporters of same-sex marriage to misfits who endorse bestiality. Which brings to mind the timeless insight of humorist Mark Russell that “bestiality is never consensual.”

Into this rich mix now appears the 2012 standard-bearer, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who, if he were to run, would be mounting his third national candidacy. It was the late, great former Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona who said that the only known cure for the presidential virus, once a candidate becomes infected, is embalming fluid. But Romney backers can point out that Ronald Reagan, the revered Gipper, also ran three times, losing nomination fights in both 1968 and 1976 before winning his landslide White House victory in 1980.

But with all these candidates, just imagine the possibly unwieldy debates before next year’s primaries. Because of time constraints, each of the potentially two dozen candidates could be limited to one chance of perhaps 90 seconds in which to make both an opening statement and a closing one. It could be a circus, but with this untreated national outbreak of high self-esteem, the GOP, yearning for the order imposed by “The Great Mentioner,” confronts a record crop of presidential candidates and, who knows, maybe somewhere in there even a potential president.

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