On presidential elections, most would fail at attitude

Trends, and careful examination, would establish that most aspirants for top office do so out of reasons that are not remotely honourable

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By Vincent Chahale

After the Judiciary drama two months ago, the climax of which was the retirement of Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, the nation is back to its “national sport” – politics. In less than fifteen months, the country will be conducting a general election. In the long walk to this election, several Kenyans will present themselves for candidacy to occupy the Office of the President. The intention and reasons for running will be varied.

Some candidates will be seeking to realise a long-nursed passion. Some will seek momentary glory, which will be discarded as soon as serious candidates make offers with pecuniary components. Some will consider running as a pathway to career success – having one’s name on the presidential ballot paper is one sure way of career success.

Organisations, governments or international conglomerates will not shy away from employing a one-time presidential candidate. The incumbent will be trying to avoid being enlisted in that shameful and disgraceful list of one-term African presidents.

One question that keeps ringing in my mind is whether the gravity of the occupancy of this high office is well understood by these aspirants. Do they understand the calling associated with this high office? Have they been called to it? Are they prepared for it, or is it, to them, just the zenith of the Kenyan legislator’s political career?

The American president is arguably the most powerful president in the world. This is simply because America is a superpower. Recently, the two main parties in America concluded their primaries and nominated their candidates for Office of the President. The elections to be held in November will result in one of the nominated frontrunners being elected. This will then mean that the losing candidate, much as he will be eligible – but out of practice – will never offer himself to run for this Office again.

In Kenya, rejected presidential candidates run again and again, recklessly abandoning the reality that they have been previously rejected. If America were like Kenya, former presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and John McCain, who have previously lost their bids, would be running for office again this year. The reason they are not in the race is because of the respect they have for this High Office the American people have spoken and rejected them from occupying. That respect must be maintained because it is not about one’s personal ambition but the rich history and heritage of the American presidency that has got to be guarded.

Marcus Cunliffe, the acclaimed British professor of American Studies, had this to say of what the greatest task of the American president is: “He must speak to the United States as well as for it. He must find ways to lift men out of their everyday selves. He must be the nation’s conscience, its chief teacher, a seer rather than a Caesar.” I wonder if the ten or so candidates we will have next year will be seeking to be seers or Caesars. Will they possess the mettle to be Kenya’s conscience with the unwavering mission to lift Wanjiku from her everyday malaise?

The making of the American presidency has always been approached with abundant caution, right from the start when fifty-two delegates arrived in Philadelphia in the spring and summer of 1787 to propose revision to the Articles of Confederation that then governed the United States. When the convention was adjourned, a new Constitution had been drafted; one of the novel elements was the provision for an Executive President.

Previously, under the Articles of Confederation, there was a president of Congress, which position was simply a chairman who held office for not more than a year. The acceptable notion was therefore that of a plural Executive and not one where all power vested in the Executive President.

Much as this proposal was approved by the Convention, it was met with a lot of resistance from people who greatly feared any semblance of the British monarch. George Mason, an old friend of George Washington (who would be the first president), saw the proposal as a scheme of elective monarchy. Patrick Henry, who was once the Governor of Virginia, viewed it as a “squint toward monarchy.” Rawlins Lowndes, a legislator from South Carolina, observed that the proposed constitution was “the best preparatory plan for a monarchical government he had ever read.” Another legislator, James Lincoln, worried about the aspect of an incumbent president being re-eligible to run for another four-year term, quipped: “This mighty, this omnipotent Governor General,” referring to the president, “may hold it so long that it will be impossible without a revolution to displace him.”

The misgivings were eventually overcome and, after hundreds of discussions and debates, the Office was created. It has since had over forty occupants, the latest being, for lack of a better word, “Kenyan”. For the most part, the occupants of this Office have left a mark, not just in the United States, but worldwide.

The Office of the (American) President has, over the last 200 years, been occupied by a fair share of strong presidents, who have spoken to the people’s conscience and transformed the everyday lives of Americans. They include presidents such as Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson and the two Roosevelts. These presidents, in their own ways, transformed the American nation and promoted national unity, peace, democracy and responsibility. George Washington, for example, threatened not to assume office if a scheme by some politicians to make the presidency imperial and not answerable to the legislature in any way succeeded. I wonder how many Kenyan leaders would have refrained from jumping at such an opportunity.

This is not to say that America has not had ineffective presidents. Pierce, Buchanan, Grant, Harding and Coolidge no doubt countenanced national disunity, economic selfishness and irresponsibility. Nevertheless, the Office has, through time, due to the character of its occupants, been the domicile of the American conscience. It is no wonder that Harry Truman suggested that Congress should pass legislation designating former presidents as free members of Congress with the right to attend sessions but without voting rights. His view was that former presidents were people that America must seek for help and counsel since they had a unique experience.

Later, three senators sponsored a proposal that ex-presidents be regarded as senators at large and be given seats in the Senate. These proposals, though never fully adopted, resulted in the American Senate changing its rules to allow ex-presidents to address the Senate with proper notification.

The point here is to demonstrate how this Office is held in high esteem, and how the occupant should be a man or woman who commands great respect. Kenyans must revise their attitude towards this Office. Even as we demand that men or women of high esteem hold it, we have to shelve to obscurity the notion of tribal superiority (in terms of numbers) as the bedrock for determining presidential candidates.

We must foster the nation’s conscience in society right from childhood. We cannot breed a society that is full of ethnic hatred, corruption and hate speech and expect it to produce one excellent president. An excellent president can only come from Kenyans who, in their own lives, pursue excellence.

For those who offer themselves to run for President next year, before calling the cameras to make that grand announcement, question the attitude that you posses towards this Office.

If Kenyans offered you the opportunity to serve the country and contribute to its economic development, social cohesion and political stability without occupying the Office of the President, would it be an option you would take?

If your answer to this is no, then you do not deserve to occupy the Office of the President of this great country!

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