When JFK was asked why he was running for president in 1960 he answered, “Because that’s where the power is.” When kid brother Ted was asked the same question 20 years later he couldn't think of an answer and his presidential ambitions went downhill from there.
President of the United States is the most powerful and prestigious job in the world, so why, once again, is the crowd of candidates not the finest America has to offer?
The salary's good but not awesome — $400,000 plus $150,000 for expenses and travel and another $19,000 for entertainment — but the perks are astounding (Air Force One and command of the world's strongest military, for starters) and the retirement can be rewarding. Just ask Bill Clinton.
It’s not hard to understand why better public figures choose not to run when you consider the withering attacks from all directions – not just by the opposition but also from a 24/7 media cycle with an insatiable appetite for scandal and controversy.
Yet there’s no shortage of candidates, even if they’re not the best and may not possess the experience, intelligence and integrity to be a potentially great president.
Here are some other reasons:
Consolation prize – hoping your unsuccessful candidacy gets you nominated for Veep or for a cabinet post, and a platform to run again in four or eight years.
Make history – be the first Jew, the first woman, the first Hispanic, the first gay, the first Indian president.
Looking ahead – running once can lay the groundwork for another try (Ronald Reagan did it in 1976; John McCain in 2000).
Fame – A presidential run, even a hopelessly unsuccessful one, is a chance to become a household name. You have a lot (but never enough) of other people’s money to get you news interviews, town hall meetings, participation in national debates and your name painted on the side of an RV or even a plane.
A pulpit – you can draw attention to your issues even if you know lightning won’t strike. Bernie Sanders wants to push Hillary Clinton to a more progressive position; religious crusaders Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee hope to do the same on the Republican side.
Get rich – failed presidential bids can lead to lucrative speech gigs, jobs as cable networks commentators or high-paying corporate posts.
Become a lobbyist – trade on your contacts, access, publicity and notoriety by becoming a lobbyist with big paychecks based more on your contacts and your name than on your political skills.
Get a book deal – hire a ghostwriter while some people still remember your name, and reveal and embellish all your stories from the campaign and the rest of your life. It may not pay a bundle, but who doesn’t like having their name on the title page of a book?
Go back to Congress – or run for Congress if you haven’t already and capitalize on your semi-household name that is able to garner more public attention from your colleagues and translate that into influence in the institution.
Ego – This may be the most compelling reason of all, especially for repeat political offenders. It's the greatest ego trip imaginable, right up there with rock stars. And you have a cadre of sycophants surrounding you, telling you you're the next leader of the free world and making sure you get lots of media attention everywhere.
Sex – even the promise of and proximity to power is an aphrodisiac. Just ask Henry Kissinger.
Every candidate claims to be in the race to serve the nation, or to advance key values, and there’s no doubt that’s often part of the political equation. But running for president has numerous other temptations – and that may explain why the process does not attract the kind of sober, intelligent, levelheaded candidates our nation so desperately needs.