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Politics is an honorable and, in a democracy, essential calling and at the pinnacle of that field is the American presidency. What we require our candidates to go through to get there verges on the sadistic.
Campaigns are marathon ordeals. No sooner had the Iowa caucuses ended then the candidates were on night flights to New Hampshire. No sleep. Bad food. The need to be almost manically cheerful and upbeat before ever-changing crowds. The constant begging for — and it is begging — campaign funds. And the constant thought that a small misstep, a carelessly phrased reply to a shouted question, could ruin months of work.
There is something very sad when campaigns come to an end, as they did this week for Democrat John Edwards and Republican Rudolph Giuliani. It’s always possible to go back and say that one could have done something better or different, but both fought their campaigns hard and by their own lights. Both were credible candidates.
Edwards had been the party’s 2004 vice-presidential nominee, and he had a fully formed message and a compelling personal story of poor beginnings and personal tragedy. It was made more compelling when it was revealed that his wife Elizabeth’s breast cancer had returned. She elected to keep on campaigning when no one would have blamed her for sitting it out.
After 9/11, then-New York Mayor Giuliani was for a while America’s mayor; it gave him vital name recognition and he began the campaign with decent standings in the polls. But he was never a Main Street Republican, and he could never overcome that or his quirky personal life and business dealings. As he faded in the standings, he elected to place all his bets on Florida, and, like Edwards, his quest ended there.
If ending a campaign is rough on a candidate, it’s harder still on the staff and volunteers, most of them young, most of them new to the brutal setbacks that politics can inflict. As the withdrawing candidate insists that the campaign did indeed advance their issues and that the ideals will live on, his young supporters exchange addresses, promise to stay in touch — “it was great working with you” — and, with their hearts broken, scoop up a last campaign poster from the many littering the floor.
There can be only one winner. There must be a better way of choosing our president, but nobody’s found it.