Big beasts paw the ground, not needed in the hunt, not ready to sleep

ex-officio-coverIn 1970, Donald Westlake used the pseudonym “Timothy J. Culver” to publish a novel called Ex Officio. Even Westlake’s most devoted fans consider Ex Officio to be an overlong, tedious mess. But if you dig beneath the elaborate descriptions of drably furnished rooms in which nothing happens and bypass the occasional rants about political issues that stirred few passions even at the time, it is possible to find the kernel of an interesting story.

The main character is a man named Bradford Lockridge who finds himself bewildered and frustrated by his role in life. For the first 60 years of his life, Lockridge was the center of attention in every room he entered, and for the last four of those 60 years he was president of the United States. All that dynamism and challenge came to an abrupt end when he was defeated in his bid for a second term. Now Lockridge is 70 years old, still vigorous, still feeling like the man who once held the fate of nations in his hands, but unable to find any way back to the center of events. The novel was supposed to be an airport thriller, so Lockridge comes up with a wacky idea and precipitates a crisis that unfolds outside public view, among political leaders and intelligence operatives.

Lockridge and Ex Officio came to my mind recently when I heard that the former boss of the Starbucks coffee chain, Howard Schultz, had announced that he was planning to mount an independent bid for the presidency in 2020. The only reaction I heard from anyone was derision. It is very difficult to see who Mr Schultz imagines his constituency will be. As a public figure, he has associated himself with the hard-charging style of entrepreneurs like Ray Kroc and Harland Sanders, and his company with the progressive attitudes on gender and race that characterize its hometown, Seattle. If the 2016 election had turned out differently, with Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders defeating Republican nominee John Ellis Bush; if the Sanders administration had become very unpopular; if the Democrats were nonetheless set on renominating President Sanders; if the Republicans were condemned to nominate loudmouth landlord Donald J. Trump as his opponent; why then, suburban moderates might lead the electorate to a Schultz presidency.

But none of those things happened. In our universe, the presidency of Don John of Astoria has driven record turnout among Democrats in midterm elections and will likely drive such high levels of participation in the 2020 primaries that the Democrats are unlikely to nominate anyone who does not have broad appeal among the constituencies Mr Schultz might have hoped to reach had the scenario above played out. The nominee may not be an advocate of the Finance First economic policies that the Democratic Party has espoused since the emergence of Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, or of the omnibelligerent foreign policy it has endorsed throughout that same period, but if s/he does not, it will be because those policies have lost the support of the voting groups that are going to decide the election. If Mr Schultz plans to wed himself to those views, his base of support will be as fictional as President Lockridge.

It certainly is possible that, with such a large number of Democrats seeking the party’s nomination, the eventual winner will be someone who is unacceptable to a great many voters. But I don’t see any significant number of those voters plumping for Mr Schultz. For example, late last year Senator Kamala Harris of California allowed herself to be identified with an attack on the Knights of Columbus, portraying the 2 million members of that fraternal service organization as dangerous extremists unfit for public office. Those guys all vote, and most of them have large numbers of relatives who vote, and if Senator Harris doesn’t find a way to distance herself from that boneheaded stunt none of them will be voting for her. But that doesn’t mean they will be voting for Mr Schultz. They might consider him if he were the public face of a brewery based in Wisconsin, but a coffeehouse based in resolutely secular Seattle is not K of C territory. Rather than back Senator Harris, those Knights of Columbus who don’t want Don John back for a second term will probably just skip the presidential line on the ballot altogether.

At any rate, Mr Schultz does make me wish Ex Officio were a better book. It must be very hard for Mr Schultz, after decades of intense work and fantastic success at the helm of Starbucks, to find himself at loose ends. Some years ago, Starbucks reached a point where its founder’s daily presence in the office was inhibiting the rise of a new generation of executives who could bring the new ideas the company needs if it is to seize its opportunities in today’s markets. Mr Schultz has recognized that, stepping back and looking for other opportunities. He tried his hand at the big-time sports business, spending five years as owner of the National Basketball Association’s Seattle franchise. During those years I was a frequent visitor to Seattle, and I have to admit Schultz’ handling of the team was a substantial convenience for me personally. Under previous owners, downtown traffic jammed up pretty badly on game days, but by the time he gave up and sold the team to a group who moved it to Oklahoma, so few people were bothering to attend the games that it was no problem at all. Nor has he managed to make much of an impact doing anything else lately. After so many years of success, still only in his mid-60s and in fine health, of course Mr Schultz is looking for another challenge. If not for the hundreds of pages of nothingness that pad out Ex Officio, someone could give him a copy of the book, hoping that he would see in it, first, that someone understands his frustration, and second, that a vanity campaign for the presidency is not a promising way to relieve it.

Mr Schultz is not the only real-life Bradford Lockridge weighing a presidential bid. Septuagenarians Bernie Sanders (who will be 79 by inauguration day 2021,) Joseph Biden and Michael Bloomberg (who will both be 78 by that date,) and John Kerry (who will be 77,) are obvious examples. But so too are other, much younger candidates. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Peter “Pete” Buttigieg, will turn 39 the day before the 2021 inauguration, so that if he were elected he would be the youngest person ever to ascend to the presidency. But why on earth is he running, seeing that his educational attainments as a graduate of Harvard University and Pembroke College, Oxford, and his military experience as a combat veteran of the war in Afghanistan, would seem to promise that he might in future years rise to a higher perch from which to start than the mayoralty of a town of barely 100,000 people. Perhaps Mr Buttigieg is trying to vault directly to the top because Indiana is a rather  conservative state, and as an openly gay man he doubts that its voters will back him for governor or senator. And maybe they won’t! But there are a lot of states that are as conservative as or more conservative than Indiana, and some of those are likely to be in play in next year’s presidential election. If he is tacitly admitting that can’t compete for statewide office in his home state, he will start the presidential campaign having conceded North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Arizona, in all of which the Democrats are likely to show enough strength at least to force the Republicans to commit major resources. So the Buttigieg presidential campaign looks to me very much like a Lockridge-style attempt to escape from personal frustration, not like a serious bid for high office.

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  1. It’s a bit of a mess at points (the worst problem is that in spotting distant trendlines, it misses imminent ones, like Nixon going to China), but it’s hardly tedious. My review of it probably is, a bit. Thanks for the plug, but I can speak for myself. I don’t think the other reviewer says it’s tedious either. It’s far too long and involved for anyone to bother finishing, if that were the case.

    I just did another piece relating to it, focusing on the Fuhrer in America idea, which doesn’t sound so offbase to me as it did when I first reviewed it. Fuhrers of the Left and Right need each other–each convinces the followers of the other that there’s no alternative, and Democracy isn’t possible anymore, so let’s get our guy in there, and shut everybody else out.

    Bernie made President Trump possible, and that’s a fact. Westlake saw around that corner, but hopefully we can still dodge the bullet, and avoid both extremes.

    I’m not sure Schultz is a good fit for the type of figure Westlake writes about–Bradford Lockridge is genuinely good at politics and statecraft, is well-suited to be President. He’s been President, done the job–and can never do it again. And he knows this, until a stroke robs him of self-understanding, which for a Westlake character is the ultimate tragedy.

    Hardly Schultz’s tragedy, since he’s too banal and mediocre a figure to be tragic. Clearly he never had much self-understanding to start with, and like all such people, he thinks he understands everything. But yes, in general, successful men of a certain age have a hard time accepting their obsolescence. I’m not so sure it’s just men, either.

    The Messianic impulse is a thing in us. We all dream of being The One Who Saves Everything. That way you’ll be remembered forever, and so you’ll never die. Whoever defeats Trump, the internal argument goes, will be seen as a savior, a liberator, and that’s a huge inducement, above and beyond the lesser prize of being head of state of a potent but declining power. And for real billionaires, like Schultz and Bloomberg, it’s just too much of a provocation that a member of their club with forged credentials grabbed that brass ring.

    But we’re not voting for a savior, or a CEO. We’re voting for President, and God help us all if we forget that. Or if he/she does. Rooting for a she, on the whole.

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