Monday, September 7, 2009

The Presidents

“I wanted a less prestigious job with a lower salary,” said the man on the radio.

He had left his job as a politician to become a pediatric nurse. He would be interviewed on a show coming up later tonight; this was just a promotional sound-bite.

“But seriously, he loves his new job,” said the radio announcer.

I was surprised, because I had assumed his comment was serious. Was it really so absurd that someone would want to escape the pressures of a prestigious, high-paying job? Wouldn’t lots of people want to switch to something with less stress, less responsibility, even less money? What about CEOs, movie stars, politicians? What about the president?

I have watched a number of people attempt to become president of a number of things during the last few years. The process that it takes to become a president would itself be enough to make most people wish for a less-prestigious and lower-paying position.

There was, of course, the race to become president of the United States. Lots of people wanted that job; they raised millions of dollars, campaigned day and night, hired speech writers and campaign managers to craft elaborate strategies for outsmarting the other people who also wanted to be president. This president was chosen democratically, and almost every adult citizen of the country was allowed to cast a vote for his or her choice. So the people who wanted to be president needed to try to please large numbers of citizens.

There was also the selection of the president of my college. While the people who wanted this job did not have to raise money or hire helpers to design their campaigns, they did go to great lengths to try to get the job. One flew all the way from Chicago to interview; another gave a speech to representatives of the entire college despite the fact that she had broken her leg the evening before. She must have really wanted the job.

This process gave the impression of some democratic overtones, in that members of the campus community got to submit their opinions about the job finalists. These opinions were passed on to the board of our college, who were free to read them, consider them, and then choose whichever candidate they wanted. The candidates’ job was to please the campus community but to please the board even more.

One other race that followed a democratic model was for the presidency of the college’s academic senate (which is like student government for teachers). All the teachers at my school had the opportunity to vote. The democratic integrity of this process was marred, however, by the fact that only one candidate chose to run, and only after some fairly intense coercion.

This last presidential election was the only one I could really relate to. I can’t imagine myself attempting to become president of anything—the country, a college, the campus book club—except under some pretty serious duress. I definitely wouldn’t be running against anybody, because if someone else wants the job, by all means, she can have it.

Sometimes I try to imagine wanting to be a president. It’s a stressful job, certainly. The president of my college needs to make crucial decisions about our budget and policies. She knows she will often face criticism for those decisions, and if her decisions aren’t good, she could damage or destroy the entire school. That seems pretty stressful.

On top of that, there is the stress of having to be the face and voice of the college. I don’t really feel that I represent my job when I am not there, at least not in an active way. If I decide to spend the weekends wandering around the local mall in ripped-up sweatpants, no one will say, “I can’t believe an English teacher from Las Pecinas College walks around dressed like a slob!” I am allowed to make negative comments about my school, if I so choose, without violating the specifications of my job description. But being the president of a college is a twenty-four-hour job. No matter what the president is doing, whether walking her dog or shopping at the store or, say, visiting a strip club, as long as she is publically viewable, she represents our college and is expected to act accordingly, which means that she should avoid strip clubs if she wants to be seen as doing her job properly.

Why would somebody want this job, I wondered, as I watched the candidates giving their speeches to the college. Sure, it pays a lot more than my job, but I don’t see that the added responsibility is worth the money. I would opt for the lower-paying, less-prestigious job any day.

Now imagine being president of this entire country. Think of all the things you could never be caught doing: making an insulting or critical comment about your own country. Making an off-color joke, an insensitive remark. Spacing out and forgetting what you were talking about mid-sentence. Forgetting the name of a country. Farting in public. Playing air guitar. Getting drunker than you meant to. Making obscene hand gestures. Buying pornography. Going to a sex shop or a swingers’ party, even with your spouse.

It’s like being a celebrity, except you make less money and are expected to maintain your dignity all the time.

Because I don’t want to be president—of my country, my college, my academic senate—I really appreciate those who are willing to do those jobs. I guess I think of them sort of like the person who cleans the toilets; it’s a dirty job, and I’m really glad somebody is doing it.


esa_morena said...

You really took the high road on this one! Nice job. It is way cooler being a teacher than a president.

Karin Spirn said...

Glad you think so (about the high road)...this is one of those posts that makes me glad I have tenure! (though no offense was meant to any presidents during the making of this post).

adam said...

what about the divine right of kings? In the olden times the king would be sacrificed every seven years or so, at the behest of the goddess. They were slowly cut to pieces while tied to the sacred oak tree. Doesn't sound worth it for a few years of supreme authority. If only George jr was ritually flayed at the end of his term! ahh we miss the good old days!

Karin Spirn said...

Are you like one of those Republicans who keeps making cryptic comments about how "sometimes things happen and presidents get killed through brutal anachronistic rituals"? Dan Savage was right!