Not long ago, Nick announced that he would never run for president because he didn’t want to be killed. I don’t know where he got that — we’ve certainly not talked a lot about assassination at home, nor has he ever been aware, so far as I know, of a recent assassination attempt on a sitting president. Nonetheless, I wasn’t terribly surprised that he would so easily give up the American Dream of becoming president. He doesn’t much like the spotlight, and he really doesn’t like people disagreeing with him, and it’s been quite clear to him over the past few months, if not the last year and a half, that both the spotlight and public disagreement are central to the job of running for, and being, president.
He might not have had to learn the lesson from TV or current events. A spate of picture books for children focused on elections seems to have the same underlying message: democracy is hard. You might not actually want to be a leader. Gone are the inspirational stories of my own childhood, in which children embrace leadership and optimistically look forward to making the world a better place. These stories are, in fact, a little depressing in their realism about presidential politics.
In Duck for President, by Doreen Cronin (2004), a sequel to Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type and Giggle, Giggle, Quack, we are back on the familiar terrain of Farmer Brown’s farm. These animals got organized in their first picture book outing, and Duck for President is a kind of natural outcome of that. In it, Duck — tired of the division of labor on the farm that has him taking out the trash, moving the lawn, and grinding coffee beans — decides to run for Farmer Brown’s position in charge of the farm. What he hasn’t seen is how busy Farmer Brown is: at the end of the day, he’s covered in “hay, horsehair, seeds, sprouts, feathers, filth, mud, muck, and coffee stains.” After he wins the election, Duck, too, is covered in more than just his own feathers — so he runs for governor and eventually for president. Running with the unarguable slogan, “A DUCK! NOT A POLITICIAN!” Duck defeats two incumbents. But as president, he finds himself “covered from head to toe in face powder, paper cuts, staples, security badges, Secret Service agents, and coffee stains.” Fed up with this job as with the earlier ones, Duck sees his old job advertised in the classifieds and returns to the farm . . . to write his autobiography. (And, presumably, to grind the coffee, take out the trash, and mow the lawn.)
But it’s not just Duck who finds out that leading is way more difficult than it might appear. When Luke Pennybaker wins the presidency, in President Pennybaker (by Kate Feiffer, 2008), he, too, discovers he’s bitten off a little more than he can chew. Promising to paint the White House orange is simple enough — but then the incumbent does it before him. The rest of his platform — making life fair, only doing homework when you want, eating dessert whenever you want, staying up late, and providing pets for all — offers a laundry list of children’s fantasies of the adult world. And yet when President Pennybaker sends ice cream, cake, and presents to everyone, he immediately gets complaints — from the person who can’t eat sugar or doesn’t like the present, for example. Like Duck, Luke abandons his office at the end of his story, leaving the presidency in the capable paws of his vice-presidential dog, Lily.
Lane Smith’s Madame President (2008) and Rosemary Well’s Otto Runs for President (2008) are slightly more optimistic, perhaps because they don’t set their sights quite so high. Unlike the first two books, Madame President doesn’t focus on the campaign or the platform at all — it simply begins with a young girl, Madame President herself, already in office. The book offers a day in the life of a young president. She leads by example (cleaning her room) and holds the press conference every public official has probably wanted to hold, answering questions with inanities like “I know you are, but what am I?” She’s clearly read up on leadership — we see books on Teddy Roosevelt and Harriet Tubman in her room, as well as a Susan B. Anthony poster, Profiles in Courage, and The James K. Polk story. And yet Madame President doesn’t take herself too seriously, so she makes it through the day without giving up.
Like Madame President, Rosemary Wells’s Otto seems to have relatively modest ambitions — he’s running for student government president in his elementary school, for one thing. And, like at least one candidate in this year’s primary season, he centers his campaign on listening. Where Duck and Luke told people what they wanted to hear — which happened to be what they themselves wanted to say — Otto listens, asking his schoolmates (even the kindergartners!) what they really want. It turns out that the two popular kids who are running — Tiffany and Charles — don’t really know what anyone outside of their own cliques wants, while Otto finds out that things like five minutes of beautiful music every morning, and bigger towels in the showers, are far more desirable than more mirrors in the girls’ room or more meat at lunch. Like Duck and Luke and even Madame President, Otto does eventually discover that “it’s hard work being president” — but he doesn’t give up. Rather, he hands out more cookies.
Maybe that’s the strategy our own candidates should be employing. I know it would work for Nick — and maybe for me, too. I appreciate these books’ honesty, but I do mourn, a little bit, the loss of a kind of grand optimism. When “politician” becomes a dirty word, can we still get excited about the presidency? Even Nick has been excited about this year’s election — like me, he’ll have this Tuesday off, and he’ll come into the voting booth with me or his dad. Maybe this time, he’ll see that a leader can both inspire optimism and get things done. We can only hope.