Few things in life are more personal or emotional than the death of a parent. For the family of George H.W. Bush this past week, that experience was fodder for wall-to-wall TV news coverage and the front page of every newspaper.
As the patriarch of the Bush family was laid to rest, the ceremonies served as a glaring example of how the families of presidents — and presidential candidates — sign away their privacy at the start of a campaign.
It’s a trade-off that dozens of Democrats are currently considering ahead of possible 2020 presidential campaigns. For one of them, those trade-offs proved too much.
“The process is cruel,” former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said Thursday, announcing he would not seek the White House. He explained that the way families are exposed in presidential campaigns was ultimately the factor that convinced him and his wife to pass on a run. “Every family has its warts, has its issues … has its things they’d rather keep private, and we do as well.”
But otherwise private matters have a lot to do with modern-day campaigns. Scrutiny of presidential candidates has always existed on some level, but the trend of picking through personal lives has accelerated in the past 30 years.
Historians point to the 1988 campaign, when Gary Hart, a Colorado senator and front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, dropped out of the race over allegations of an extramarital affair. Since then, countless men in politics have been caught up in sex scandals that have often led to their demise and, in many cases, seen their families dragged into public view.
The glare of a presidential campaign magnifies it all — every policy, every word (or perceived scream), every pound.
“It’s absolutely brutal,” former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean told NPR. Dean led the Democratic field for much of the 2004 primary before his campaign collapsed after losing the Iowa caucuses. His speech that night went viral for what sounded like Dean yelling into a microphone in a loud and crowded room.
“You see the worst side of humanity by most of the people who are involved in it,” Dean added.
Dean said he anticipated “the meanness” before he entered the race, but he said he was surprised by the campaign’s physical demands.
“You’re basically getting four-and-a-half hours of sleep for two years,” said Dean, a medical doctor. “It’s very tough on your health. I eat when I’m tired, so I probably gained 20, 25 pounds.”
In the years since that campaign, Dean has fielded several calls from potential presidential candidates — including some this year, though he won’t say which ones — who want to know what the experience is like.
He’s blunt in these conversations, telling them “how tough it can be,” that “everybody has to be on board in the family” and “if you can’t raise the money, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
A risk many are willing to take
Candidates’ personal and private lives are exposed for all to see, from high school grades and yearbooks to secrets they tried to bury, such as substance abuse, legal and financial struggles and even marital problems, like infidelity.
For the likely many 2020 candidates, it’s a risk they’re willing to take. The field is expected to stretch well into double digits, and include Democrats like California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and many others. Most Democratic presidential candidates are expected to jump into the race in early 2019, and have said they’ll make a final decision to run or not run over the holidays.
It’s the exact spot that Barack and Michelle Obama found themselves in back in December 2006 with tough conversations before Obama announced he was running officially in February 2007. “Some of our conversations were angry and tearful, some of them earnest and positive,” Michelle Obama wrote in her new memoir, Becoming.
What saying yes to a campaign means
Here’s just some of the things that deciding to run can mean for candidates and their families:
- a two-year stretch of constant travel and little sleep
- hours upon hours of begging strangers for campaign contributions
- even more time shaking hands and delivering speeches that amount to literally saying the same thing over and over, multiple times a day, for months on end
- a level of public scrutiny that is exponentially higher than anything even the most high-profile, already-elected candidates have ever experienced before
For example, in 2003, when former Secretary of State John Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts at the time and a Vietnam War veteran in the public eye for 30 years, was running, he learned something very new from reporters.
The Boston Globe had uncovered family secrets that even he had never heard before — the details of his grandfather’s suicide. “It was a strange feeling to learn such intimate information from a reporter, with a handheld tape recorder running,” he wrote in his 2018 memoir, Every Day Is Extra.
The reluctance of young voters and minorities
“The real question in today’s environment is, “Why would anyone run?” noted Shauna Shames, a professor at Rutgers University-Camden, and the author of Out of the Running: Why Millennials Reject Political Careers and Why It Matters. She said young people, in particular, just don’t see politics as “a meaningful way to produce the change they see in the world right now.”
“These are thoughtful, caring, compassionate people, who really look at politics as something where the costs for running outweigh the benefits,” she said, adding that there’s “opportunity cost” to not spending time with family — and potential media intrusion on privacy.
That’s particularly acute for “women, people of color and gay people, who already feel marginalized. There’s a cost of feeling discriminated against, and that it’s not a meritocracy.”
There are also the financial costs of taking time off from work and the “ick factor” of raising money, she said.
But there’s a potential cost to democracy and society as well, she said, if people feel politics can’t affect positive change.
“For some issues, the only solution is politics,” Shames said, adding that there’s a danger when good, smart, creative people stay out of politics. Democracies “die in lots of ways,” Shames said, “and one way is if politics becomes this corrupt cabal. If people stop believing in it, it fails.”
“If you can’t get through it, then you shouldn’t do the job.”
For Patrick, the chance to be governor was worth the cost, but the chance to be president was not.
The Bush family was happy to repeatedly take on the challenges of a White House run, and, for them, it worked out well. Both George H.W. and George W. ascended to the White House. Jeb Bush fell short, but did serve as governor of Florida.
Even with their successes, the Bushes still had to endure their share of public humiliations.
In 1987, for example, Newsweek declared George H.W. a “wimp” on its cover; George W. saw long-buried secrets emerge in the final days of his campaign, like an arrest for driving under the influence; and in the social-media dominated modern campaign era, Jeb Bush was mocked online for pleading with rally-goers to “please clap.” He also saw himself branded and diminished as “low energy” by Donald Trump.
The Bushes, of course, found a way to win. But for every future president, there are dozens of failed candidates who suffer the public shamings without ever enjoying the consolation of the ultimate prize.
Despite his “brutal” characterization of presidential politics, Dean said he looks back on his run as “a great highlight” and an “uplifting experience.” And he said the physical and emotional gauntlet of the presidential campaign is, in the end, a good thing.
“It’s a very tough race, and people aren’t nice about it,” Dean said. “And I actually think that’s just fine. If you can’t get through it, then you shouldn’t do the job.”