The first entry featured in A Torch Kept Lit, a new compilation of obituaries penned by William F. Buckley and originally printed in National Review, was that of Dwight Eisenhower. A moderate Republican who believed that Big Government was as desirable as a big military, Eisenhower was not received kindly by conservatives.
Buckley expressed a wistful feeling of “what could have been” as he concluded Eisenhower’s obituary, “If he was, somehow at the margin deficient, it was because the country did not rise to ask of him the performance of a thunderbolt. He gave what he was asked to give. And he leaves us, if not exactly bereft, lonely; lonely for the quintessential American.”
Americans remain so as we prepare to vote for our next President on Tuesday. Most of us admit that neither candidate represents the “quintessential American” unless those words are mere adjectives to describe a narrower person such as “Donald Trump is the quintessential American huckster” or “Hillary Clinton is the quintessential American liar.” (After the election we will either have to add a boiler room or a Watergate Suite to the White House. If you are unsure about the boiler room reference, check out Glengarry Glen Ross. If you are unsure about Watergate, then whisper “Richard Nixon” into a mirror three times and see what happens.) Regardless, we are fated to be without the quintessential American as our leader for another four years.
Given the bleak choices before us, we understand why some Americans may decide not to vote. We must remind them that the lack of a credible candidate makes this election all the more important. Every four years Americans are given the opportunity to affirm our Constitution. By voting, we affirm not just the Bill of Rights but our governmental structure itself – the three branches of government, their separate and distinct powers, and the checks and balances between them. The importance of this structure rises as the character of our electoral choices fall. This is not an election to sit out.
While reading the obituary, I was surprised that Buckley questioned if Eisenhower was “at the margin deficient” because Americans did not ask of him “the performance of a thunderbolt.” Buckley was talking about the Supreme Allied Commander that defeated the Nazis. Such was the stature of our leaders in those days when even Eisenhower could be considered marginally deficient and such was the high expectation of his critics. What would Buckley have said of our choices next Tuesday?
Trump and Clinton are at their core deficient but their nominations were not a mistake or a case of Americans getting what we deserve. Trump and Clinton stand before us precisely because Americans have been promised thunderbolts but keep getting much less from the two major political parties who produce these nominees every four years. This time around we quit believing in thunderbolts and nominated the 40-watts up front. Next time we may quit believing in the party process itself unless they can again produce a candidate who resembles the quintessential American.