Dream Jobs That You’re Glad You Didn’t Pursue
Scott C. Reynolds is a collector of broken career dreams. This column examines the life that might have been had he, or you, followed through.
So You Wanted to be President of the
It began when you heard Ronald Reagan tell Gorbachev to tear down that wall. Every time he spoke publicly you wished you could be one of those kids in Red Dawn; you were ready to take on the commies and single-handedly go out and win the Cold War for the Gipper. That man was the voice of the nation. The voice of the free world. And at one point the voice of the Chicago Cubs in Des Moines. Your mom always told you that America was the greatest country in the world because anyone could be anything, even president. You set out to test that sentiment.
You dove right in to the political world. You watched every State of the Union address, mouthing along when each president invariably asserted that the state of the union was strong. You were glued to the television when that wall did come down and stood on your 8th grade geography desk to proclaim to your classmates that it was a day to remember. They thought you were a little off. Eyes were on you as you spoke, however, and that was part of the plan. As president you would have to command the nation with your voice. In the spirit of baby steps, that day you commanded Mr. Hall’s classroom.
Throughout high school and college you solidified your ideology. You decided you would be the no-nonsense, common sense kind of guy that could really get things done in the tangled web of the United States’ government. You were a fiscal conservative with a laissez-faire attitude toward social issues holing the belief that morality beyond basic human rights isn’t a matter for legislation. You thought that gay couples should be able to get married, get rich, and not get taxed twice on the estates they left to their adopted babies. You thought that social welfare was best handled by encouraging business and the creation of jobs. You thought a government should take care of its own, but not with a coddling hand. You saw your peers become increasingly jaded with the governance of the country and you wanted to reverse that trend and bring new blood to the leadership of this great nation. You wanted to be the change that the country needed.
As you started to map out your career path it seemed like you had two basic choices. The path to the presidency historically passed through either law school or military service. Law school seemed the more lucrative choice, but military service was obviously going to be more fun and less psychologically damaging. Your parents weren’t rich or important enough to keep out of active duty, however, and with the world going to shit the way it was you figured it was just a matter of time before you got your ear shot off in Bosnia or some other country that didn’t exist when you got that globe from your aunt on your tenth birthday. More important than law school or active service was looking good on TV. Nixon proved that when he went up against Kennedy the first time. Getting an ear shot off in a foreign land would end your political career before it started, so law school it was.
Out of law school you signed on with a well-heeled firm in D.C. to put the next phase of the plan in motion. You were knocking out items like they were a daily to-do list. Make valuable connections—check. Begin building a campaign war chest – check. Insinuate yourself with the Washington insiders—check. Pick up milk and condoms—check. Illegitimate babies have a way of coming back to bite you in the ass on the campaign trail. You started to travel back home regularly to attend social events and donate to museums to keep your local ties established as you prepared to ramp up a congressional run.
You discovered very early on in the race that your political idealism had no place in this world. Your campaign war chest was depleted in mere weeks, leaving you to question the honesty of candidates reporting campaign funding numbers. You were doing it on a shoestring compared to most—the bulk of your marketing was “viral” and made use of new media like Twitter. You quickly found yourself short-sided in what was very much becoming a war of attrition. Your opponent went on the attack when he found out you were low on funds, and 140 character appeals to the voting public just weren’t cutting it against professionally produced mudslinging ads that were airing between 30 Rock and The Office.
Special interest groups were lining up around the block to fund you the minute you announced your candidacy, but you always turned them away, making a big deal about how you would not enter the hallowed halls of the Capitol beholden to anyone but your constituents. This played big among the people, but with your back against the wall you had to choose between your ideals and your campaign. The latter ultimately won out after you rationalized away the moral ambiguity with the confidence that you would certainly do better things for the people than your opponent. Through the magic of loopholes and the impotent attempts of former Congresses at campaign finance reform it didn’t even register as a blip on anyone’s radar that you went back on your promise to fund your own campaign, and with your freshly flush budget you sailed through to victory in November.
It didn’t take you long to realize that Congress was the governing equivalent of the collegiate Greek system. You were nobody unless you were in a good committee, and as a freshman representative, you were little more than a mascot for the amusement of senior members. What else did you expect from institutions that are classically the domain of rich educated white members of secret societies. So you rushed Ways and Means (with Oversight as your safety fraternity) and landed a spot thanks to those Washington insider connections you worked so hard to cultivate and then obfuscate.
Another realization was that your ideals had no place in American government. What they never told you in civics class was that your personal beliefs don’t matter in a representative legislature. You served on behalf of your constituency. You couldn’t stand in opposition to the majority of the voters in your district no matter how much you might want to. Politics means pleasing the people that put you in office so that you can remain in office. This wasn’t a big deal at first, you were honest with the voters about your views and they voted you in. More often than not, your views aligned with theirs. But it was a big district, socioeconomically diverse, and coming down on one side of an issue or another meant alienating future voters. It was inevitable.
Things got worse when you made the jump from the House to the Senate. You were one of two people representing an entire state. You got more and more frustrated as you realized that there was no possible way to accurately represent that many different people. Every vote was a no-win situation. Your advisers were armed with complicated polling numbers and mathematical models that told you which way you leaned on any given issue. You learned that reason the senate chambers are so empty most of the time is not because senators are abusing their powers and not doing their jobs, but because that is the only way a senator can keep his job. The survival strategy was for you stay home unless there was a vote on something that a clear majority in your state would agree on. You couldn’t help but become disillusioned with the idea that one man could effectively lead a nation, and the more you interacted with the highest levels of leadership, the more you realized that it was every bit a figurehead position. That was why Reagan was so good at it. It was the greatest role of his acting career.
As you became further entrenched in the life of an incumbent senator those strongly held opinions of what is right and wrong in government were replaced by the opinions of those that funded your many campaigns for reelection. The only issues that mattered to you were the term limit bills that came up every so often. As a show of good faith, the senators made sure that enough voted yes to make it look good for the next election, and everyone with more than two years left in the current term made sure it never passed. You gave up on your dreams of the presidency because you realized that it was a sucker’s bet. Just looking at the before and after photos of American presidents was enough to tell you that you didn’t need the stress in your life. The job didn’t have any perks that you didn’t already get, came with stricter regulations on your finances, a hard limit on term, and a target on your back.
Somewhere along the line it stopped bothering you altogether that you had sold your soul and you actually believed yourself when you talked about your work as a function of the greater good. The only thing that bothered you in fact was that it was tedious to go through the motions of a campaign every six years, but you had to make a show of it, mustering every ounce of humility you could, for the voters. To eliminate this bother you decided to set your sights on the cushiest job in government, and the real seat of power in the United States. Your decision long ago to pursue the law would serve you well on the Supreme Court.
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