You gotta know who you are in this life," Chris Christie said, and he proved it by choosing not to run for President before he was ready for the job. In a way, I'm disappointed. I can relate to this guy. We come from the same part of the jungle--the New York metropolitan area--and he, with that mouth on him, exemplifies all I love about the place. I like a politician who says, "Get the hell off the beach," when a hurricane is coming. I also like his girth, which makes my own seem negligible. Enough already of these half-starved whippets running for President; I feel much wiser, and less peevish, after a good cheeseburger. But the thing I like most about New Jersey Governor Christie is that he chose not to run. This was not his time, he said, and he was right. He has more to learn about governance, and about the world, before he takes the plunge. In his first important test, he proved refreshingly free of the overweening self-regard and capacity for self-delusion that have so crippled so many recent American Presidents. It showed he has real respect for the office, and the public.
In Iowa recently, watching my 10th--God help me--crop of presidential aspirants, I suddenly realized that we have been afflicted with a terrible national disease since I began covering this perverse mating dance in 1975: any politician with a half-decent head of hair and a couple of years noodling around a governor's mansion or Congress thinks he or she can be President. And they're right. Jimmy Carter was the first. Nobody knew who he was or what he stood for, except that he smiled a lot. He did have a plan, though: he was going to filibuster Iowa. He practically lived there for two years. He finished second to "uncommitted" in the 1976 caucuses--not exactly a triumph, but ahead of all his rivals, which created enough momentum for him to stagger into the White House.
The most important thing Carter had going for him--his big selling point--was that he didn't know anything about Washington. He was a fresh face, righteously rectitudinous, a Sunday-school teacher sent to Sodom. That seemed refreshing after the Nixon squalor, and even though Carter's act got old very quickly, it has worked ever since. We keep electing Presidents who don't know anything about Washington. They fail, more often than not, or take several years to figure out what they're doing and have to scramble to clean up the mess. George H.W. Bush, an exception to this rule, ran an exemplary foreign policy--the best of the six Presidents I've watched--and a courageous domestic policy, challenging his party (and his own campaign rhetoric) by prudently raising taxes, which paved the way for Bill Clinton's balanced budgets. Bush the Elder was the exact opposite of a fresh face, so we tossed him. Barack Obama, whose lack of experience seems more painful every day, is struggling mightily--although his ability to learn from his struggles could be an advantage, if he runs smart in 2012.