Happy Leader, Happy Nation

Beneath the military blue tent that the Big Apple Circus pitches each holiday season in New York City labors a man named Serge Percelly, who juggles tennis racquets. Like other feats that seem both hugely difficult and absolutely pointless--contortionism, for example, or Steven Seagal movies--the first response to this one is "why?" But skepticism withers in the face, not of Mr. Percelly's skill, which is considerable, but of his affect, which is incandescent and irresistible. Two racquets spin, three, four, five, and the curve of the paddle is echoed in the arc of his delighted grin. There is nothing so grand in all the world as watching a person who loves what he does do it.

Which brings us to George W. Bush.

Some transition, huh? Which is probably what the Republicans are saying right about now.

But here's my theory: that the nation is happiest when its leader is obviously happy in his work. Oh, I know happiness has gone out of style, replaced by empowerment and self-esteem. But seeing, in the center ring of the political circus, a person who appears to have a job he loves with all his heart is bracing, even uplifting, for the country as a whole, in a fashion sub rosa, subconscious, but substantial. We know this from experience.

In the last 25 years the country has had two presidents who adored the job, but for quite different reasons. When right-wing operatives torture themselves with how Bill Clinton managed to beat the rap, they might consider the sheer pleasure of observing someone with the glow of knowing he knows everything. The policy wonk's policy wonk, he could rattle off the details of the welfare rolls in Alabama, the acreage in the national forests, the effect of the Asian markets on the eurodollar. And he could spit it all back in a speech that seemed to be coming straight at you, with a studied sincerity hypnotic as a snake charmer's song. That's one reason that, despite his personal behavior, his approval rating stayed high.

Ronald Reagan loved being president, too. It was the lead role, and the former actor was happy to play it that way, leaving the micromanaging to the cadre of supporting smart guys who stayed at their desks while he took the podium. When, on their anniversary, Reagan sent Nancy a homemade proclamation--"As Pres. Of the U.S., it is my honor & privilege to cite you for service above and beyond the call of duty in that you have made one man (me) the most happy man in the world for 29 years"--it was not only the action of a man who was wild about his wife but also wild about his position. The power, the pomp, the incredible, indubitable fact: I rule! Reagan exuded the confidence, not of intellect, but pride of place. That's one reason that, despite his disastrous policies, his popularity was huge.

By contrast Jimmy Carter, a man of principle and not of politics, made the presidency seem like the Stations of the Cross, his burden to bear. George Bush the elder often had the pinched look of the dyspeptic, perhaps because he thought he was inheriting morning in America and instead wound up with nightfall on Wall Street. Both men were saddled with a sagging economy, unemployment, low consumer confidence. But both also seemed out of sorts, out of place, temporary occupants of space that Reagan and Clinton inhabited fully. It is instructive to look at news footage of the two two-term presidents and see how oddly similar their body language is: a 90-degree shoulder less sartorial than spiritual, a springy momentum to the step. A confidence you can see, infectious as flu.

By the time Bob Dole gave up running the Senate to run for president, the voters knew what to look for. Seeing the poor man attempt to trade his semaphore style--"Bob Dole. Gets things done. Knows the ropes"--for some synthetic stump eloquence was painful. Like the good reporter lured into work as an editor, the gifted teacher making the move to principal, Bob Dole was pressured by convention into relinquishing the work he loved in pursuit of a role that didn't suit him. Not pretty, as Bob Dole might have growled. Big defeat.

Which really does bring us back to George W. Bush, whose rise to the highest office has had a certain inexorability not unlike that of Dole's, although instead of the forward march of the career ladder his has been the upward thrust of the family tree. The phenomenon of politics as a family business cuts both ways: it can mean a high level of comfort, or a sense of chasing a job that doesn't really fit your talents or experience. The Bush character cuts both ways, too. It's difficult to know which man he will be in the White House, the sharp charmer with a ready quip who hosted advisers on the ranch or the snarky hair trigger with the short attention span who lost New Hampshire because he spent too much time snowmobiling.

He doesn't read much or think a whole lot about political theory. He gives a speech as though he's reading someone else's words from a teleprompter, which is what he's doing. As governor he spent fewer hours at his desk than your average midlevel bureaucrat, with a long break for a lunchtime run. Even clemency appeals took him only slightly longer than it takes to eat a burger. It could be that, taken together, all this will mean he will come to wonder, deep down, why he ever wanted a job that requires so much oratory, concentration and isolation.

Or perhaps he will find a way to be happy in his work, delegating to the ghosts of Republican administrations past, reveling in the overview, the big picture, the adulation of the people. Perhaps he will find a way to have what those other two happy men did. Behave as if the shortcomings are nonexistent or insignificant. Magnify the skills through constant exhibition. Make the American people feel good by feeling great, by giving off the glow of a man who is thinking, hot damn, I'm the leader of the free world. Juggle and smile. Smile and juggle.