Mark Shields: Wanted: An emotionally secure leader

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

The late Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona, who finished second in the campaign for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, warned his fellow citizens with the wisest of advice: “Beware of the presidential candidate who has no friends his own age and confidants who can tell him to go to hell.”

That same year, an emotionally secure President Gerald Ford more than passed the Udall test. Having already put his presidency in mortal jeopardy by pardoning his resigned and prosecutable predecessor, Richard Nixon, Ford trailed Democrat Jimmy Carter by 33 percent in polls. After Ford’s shrewd pollster, Bob Teeter, discovered in his surveys that when Ford had personally campaigned in the primaries his national numbers actually slipped, it fell to Stu Spencer, the campaign’s peerless strategist, to deliver the blunt consensus of Ford’s closest advisers: “Mr. President, you are a very good president. But as a campaigner, you are no (expletive) good.”

According to two people who were in that small meeting, the president first scowled but then smiled. As leader of his party in the House, he had campaigned nationally for Republican candidates. But these men in the room were his friends and confidants who were telling him a bitter truth. Thus was born the Rose Garden strategy, in which Ford would surge within an eyelash of pulling off the greatest comeback in U.S. political history by being president full time.

Recent events in Washington reminded me of Mo Udall and Jerry Ford, two exceptionally admirable Americans. Whatever else we ultimately learn about the relevance or irrelevance of undeclared 2016 Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s emails, it’s pretty clear that among her intimates, there was no Stu Spencer to say to her: “Excuse me, but are you out of your (expletive) mind? You, as secretary of state, want to set up and use your own private email account and eventually delete thousands of messages? That is morally and politically unacceptable.”

Does President Barack Obama see or talk to anyone who tells him bluntly: “Mr. President, politics, you do not seem to understand, is about a lot more than winning a national election. Politics is a relentlessly personal business. People thrive on just being called on, being asked for their help or opinions, and being recognized and appreciated for what they do.”

Where is Obama’s Stu Spencer to tell him about why Lyndon B. Johnson, when he was Senate majority leader with only a razor-thin majority, never lost a single showdown vote to the toweringly popular Republican President Dwight Eisenhower? LBJ was always able somehow to persuade that one wavering colleague to come his way. Johnson once explained that all he needed to know about any senator whom he was wooing was whether that senator’s mother had married up or married down — intellectually, economically or socially.

If the mother had married down, then — according to Johnson — she had transferred all her hopes and ambitions to her son. All Johnson had to do was to assure the hesitating senator that by this vote, the senator was going to make his mother proud of her son.


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