Richard Reeves

Politics Is a Race Against Boredom

LOS ANGELES -- I woke up on Thursday morning and read that Robert Reich was running for governor of Massachusetts. He's bored, I thought.

I thought the same thing when I saw Janet Reno running for governor in Florida, Andrew Cuomo running for governor in New York and Bill Richardson running in New Mexico. The entire retired Cabinet of President Clinton will be on the ballot before this is over.

There are a few people who run for public office because they want to change the world, though no one leaps to mind right now except maybe Barry Goldwater. There are some who run because it is the family business, or vindication of some kind -- that might cover Cuomo and presidents Bush. Some do it for the money; they can make a living on campaign contributions and lecture fees. A few do it for the power -- elected district attorneys are often like that -- and I always thought that was the motivation of Alexander Haig and John Connally.

But in my experience, most candidates for high public office want to campaign and want the job for the excitement of it all. They want the rest of us to pay attention to them.

Obviously human motivation is always complicated. John F. Kennedy ran on a family mission, but he also did it because he liked it. Campaigning and governing for him were part of living life as a race against boredom. "It beats chasing the buck," he said once. Bill Clinton had no family mission, but he couldn't stand being alone; he had to be at the center of the action. Richard Nixon ran to get even, with everybody and everything, but he was also a world-changer in his own mind -- and he was bored out of that mind practicing law and writing books in New York between his runs for president.

No one admits he does it because he wants the excitement -- and desperately needs the attention. In private, though, former New York Mayor John Lindsay, running in 1980 for a Senate nomination he had no chance whatever of getting, told me that he just could not stand the post-mayoral years when no one paid attention to him or what he had to say. His latest successor, Michael Bloomberg, was a man who had everything but fame and the attention of the public -- and he was willing to pay $70 million or so of his own money to get those things.

Bloomberg, of course, liked to present himself as an outsider -- "Mr. Bloomberg Goes to City Hall" -- a plain old citizen worried about the future of city and republic. The great "citizen" politician of recent years was Ronald Reagan, who seemed to hear the voices of the people calling on him to bring on the sun and bring back morning in America. He did not, however, much like the voices of people who mentioned the fact that he won the presidency on his third try -- in 1980, after unsuccessful runs in 1968 and 1976 -- preferring to see himself as Jimmy Stewart in the real "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Bob Reich has everything a man could want. Well, maybe he could use some height, but at age 56 he has had a great career, including service as secretary of labor, a chair at a great university, many forums to present his provocative and always interesting ideas, a good family, the respect of his peers, and enough money to live the life academic in the comfortable confines of Cambridge. And now he wants to give up this to talk about the sales tax and potholes, and debate with state senators?

Yes, it seems he does -- even if he has a rather minimal chance of getting even the 15 percent of delegate votes at the state Democratic convention on June 1 that are required to get on the primary ballot. If he gets by that hurdle, he will have to win a rough primary and then the general election, too. To someone like me, that process is an endless series of small humiliations, Big ones, too, I'll bet, because anyone who has talked and written as prolifically as Reich has been manufacturing ordnance for his enemies all these years.

He must be nuts. Having said that, I hope he wins. He's smart, energetic, caring, likable -- and I don't know the other guys. They'll probably beat the hell out of him. But at least he won't be bored between now and whenever his race ends.

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