The Secret Factor in Running for President

It's clear now that Mitt Romney was being funny when he made his crack about rolling down an airplane's windows to let some fresh air in. But in response to that episode, plus my mention that Romney is said to be an uneasy flyer, a reader highlights what I consider the most underappreciated reality of political life. That is simply how exhausting it is, and how important sheer physical stamina turns out to be in having a successful political career.

I was in my mid-20s when I worked and traveled in Jimmy Carter's campaign, and I remember joking bitterly that I felt like I was getting a year older, in a bad way, with every passing day. That was because of the endless sequence of midnight hotel check-ins, wee-hours meetings and deadlines, 5:15am musters for the next stop, and bad food and motorcade bus rides in between. This note, from a reader who is a professor at one of the U.S. military's war colleges, goes on to explain the point:

Part of the job of President is to spend a LOT of time on aircraft, both airplanes and helicopters.  There's no way to avoid doing so, and the rigors of the job mean that you need to able to use the time productively for sleep and getting work done.  You often talk to the press while onboard or immediately after landing.  And you need to look, well, "Presidential" the moment you walk off an aircraft, often to immediately engage in a highly visible public event.

Clearly flying is not such big issue that it significantly impairs Romney, but if flying knocks you down even a little, or just gives you an unhappy day, that's not a small thing for a U.S. President.

This highlights how important the basic physiological demands of the job are.  I'm a small cog in the national security machine, and as a middle-aged cog I've come to peace with it being very unlikely I'll move up from cog to prime mover.  I just couldn't handle it physically.

I need 6 hours of sleep or I get ill pretty quickly; my sleep is easily interrupted by noise, motion, or stress; several weeks a year I'm sneezing, dripping, and hoarse from allergies; my immune system and my gut are only average at fighting off challenges; etc.   In short I'm pretty normal, but a "normal" person can't be on -- looking, sounding, thinking, feeling great -- almost every day, busy 16 hours a day, travelling frequently, meeting vast numbers of strangers, not necessarily having much control over meals and bathroom breaks, all while making stressful decisions, without just falling apart. 

About the best argument I see for the crazy long campaigns we have is to see if the candidate's body is up to the job.

I hadn't thought about it that way, but having been prompted to think about it, I agree. To be clear: this is not a partisan but a human observation. It is amazing that the four people left on the national stage -- Romney, Obama, Ryan, Biden -- bear up as well as they do. Normal people could not stand the strain.

UPDATE: A reader sends in this paragraph from Michael Lewis's profile of Barack Obama in Vanity Fair. No joke, I was thinking of exactly this passage when posting the original item, but at that moment couldn't find it. What Lewis quotes Obama as saying rings absolutely true to me:

This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. "You have to exercise," he said, for instance. "Or at some point you'll just break down." You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. "You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits," he said. "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make." He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one's ability to make further decisions. It's why shopping is so exhausting. "You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can't be going through the day distracted by trivia."
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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