By Robert Reich
Several of you have written asking if I might consider running for office. Well, I have an announcement to make. Brace yourselves.
I’m not running — for president or anything else.
I’ve run once before (for the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts in 2002) and learned I don’t have what it takes.
Before I ran, I thought I knew everything there was to know about getting elected — which made me think I could get elected, too. I’d been involved in dozens of campaigns. I’d advised candidates running for governor, senator, and president. I’d worked for three presidents.
I was wrong. It takes several unique personality traits to successfully run for a major public office. I don’t have them.
First, you need to be sufficiently narcissistic to be able to sell yourself to voters (and anyone you need to help bankroll your campaign).
In 2002, so many Massachusetts residents urged me to run that I thought voters (and funders) would flock to me once I announced.
But the moment I said I was actually running, the burden of proof instantly shifted onto me. Even my most ardent supporters wanted to know: What made me think I would be a good governor? Many of the people who I assumed would be generous with their dollars in support of my campaign became skinflints overnight.
Sure, I could promote policy ideas — I’d done it all my life — but I was terrible at promoting myself. It felt excruciatingly embarrassing. Telling complete strangers why they should be enthusiastic about me made me want to crawl into a hole and disappear. Dialing for dollars was the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had.
Donald Trump is a masterful self-promoter because he’s a pathological narcissist. He boasts about himself nonstop and has probably done so since he was an infant. No matter that his bragging requires dangerous lies, vile smears, law-breaking, and a grandiosity that would cause normal people to cringe; he does it all without moral constraint. It’s all he does.
He’s the extreme. But you’ve got to be big on self-promotion to get anywhere in electoral politics.
Second, you need to be wildly extroverted.
By this I mean you get more energy out of every encounter with a total stranger — every handshake, pat on the back, morsel of conversation — than the energy you lose in such an encounter. So by the end of a day of such encounters, you end up more energized than at the start.
Bill Clinton lived off this contact energy. If he didn’t get enough, he’d see people standing along the side of a road and order his driver to stop so he could get out and shake their hands and get more. Al Gore, by contrast, seemed to lose a bit of energy with each encounter, so by the end of a day of campaigning, he was depleted.
I was drained after a few hours.
Trump is not a typical extrovert. He doesn’t get energized from just any contacts. He gets energized when he dominates and others are submissive.
Third, you need to be a method actor.
You have to be able to will yourself into feeling whatever a situation demands, so you come off as authentic.
Ronald Reagan was a master of method acting, presumably because it had been his career before politics. Clinton was almost as good. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, far less so. Trump is fairly good at this. Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were lousy method actors; even when they told the truth, they seemed to be lying.
I was awful at method acting. On St. Patrick’s Day 1992, I was supposed to give humorous remarks in several of Boston’s Irish enclaves, but the family pet had just died, and I came off as strangely somber. On another occasion, I wanted to show indignation about the war in Iraq, but my best friend was clowning around on the fringe of the crowd, and I burst out laughing.
Fourth, you need a thick skin.
Your political opponents and the media inevitably will find your vulnerabilities and go after them. Thick skins are a necessity. Joe Biden has one of the thickest; Trump, the thinnest.
I thought I was impervious. After all, I’d been a Cabinet official at a time Republican lawmakers had turned into attack dogs. But I was wrong. When one of my opponents accused me of lying about getting Bill Clinton’s endorsement, I was livid. When another said I became a professor because I couldn’t make it in the real world, I was furious. I lost several nights’ sleep over these and other equally bogus accusations.
You need to be respectful of the media and not become incensed by their “gotcha” reporting.
I considered myself media savvy before I ran for office, but the moment I declared I was running, I was in the shark pit.
It seemed like the only thing the media wanted to report about me was my short height.
I couldn’t give a speech without The Boston Globe running a photograph of me standing on a box so I could see over a standard-sized podium. The Boston Herald even ran a story headlined “Short People Rise Up in Anger Against Reich,” claiming vertically challenged people across Massachusetts were upset with me for making self-deprecating jokes about my height.
Needless to say, I didn’t become governor of Massachusetts. The experience taught me I was terrible at being a politician.
Yet it also put me on the other side of a great divide separating those who have run for office from normal people.
And it allowed me to understand something I had never understood before: It is impossible to shake thousands of hands at a bus stop, or to phone thousands of strangers asking for their support, or to knock on thousands of doors — and do it well — without being driven by a force beyond narcissism, beyond extroversion, beyond method acting, beyond the thickest of thick skins.
To be good at running for office, you need to be driven by an ambition that’s both pathological and inspirational, grandiose and generative. It’s an ambition that, like Trump, craves attention and power — but also, unlike Trump, occasionally seeks the common good.