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May 20, 2011 10:15 AM A Mudd moment

By Steve Benen

In 1979, CBS’s Roger Mudd sat down with Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was poised to take on President Carter in a Democratic primary. Mudd asked the most obvious and straightforward of questions: “Why do you want to be president?” Kennedy sat silently for an uncomfortably long time, before delivering an awkward, two-minute answer in which he didn’t mention himself at all.

The exchange quickly became infamous, and every presidential campaign since has prepped their candidate to be able to answer that question without hesitation. Those who want to lead the nation and hold the world’s most powerful office are expected to not only show the proverbial “fire in the belly,” but also be able to articulate why they hear the call and believe they are uniquely suited to serve.

I’m a little surprised Tim Pawlenty isn’t better able to talk about this. Here’s what happened when Time’s Michael Crowley pressed the former Minnesota governor on the central rationale for his candidacy. (via Ben Smith)

[W]hen I ask Pawlenty, during a second interview in Des Moines, Iowa, exactly when he decided he was up to the grand challenge of the presidency, he answers in less than grandiose terms, explaining how he’d set up a political-action committee in 2009. I try again, saying I am curious about when he first imagined himself worthy of the history books, ready to send soldiers to their deaths and endure the national stage’s harsh toll. “I don’t know,” he replies. “I wish I had a good answer for you on that.”

Pawlenty says it is not an idea that crossed his mind 15 or 20 years ago but that as he considered life as a relatively young ex-governor, he felt obliged not to take the easy path and “go make some money and play hockey and drink beer.” He adds that he almost didn’t run at all. “Mary and I talked about this at length, and many times, and it was a close call,” he says, mentioning his wife of 24 years. He adds with a laugh, “It could have gone the other way for all the reasons you’re suggesting.”

I don’t doubt Pawlenty wants to be president, but he should probably come up with “a good answer” as to why.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • TR on May 20, 2011 10:17 AM:

    So not even Tim Pawlenty could imagine Tim Pawlenty as president?

  • Stevio on May 20, 2011 10:23 AM:

    "What, me worry?"

  • Rochester on May 20, 2011 10:25 AM:

    Didn't GOD personally speak with George W. Bush and tell him that he should be president? Apparently Tim Pawlenty doesn't have Jesus on speed-dial. Maybe he should ask Bush how that works.

  • June on May 20, 2011 10:30 AM:

    Pawlently probably couldn't even get hired at McDonalds if he gave an answer like that in a job interview. He seems to think being President requires nothing more than firing off lame, glib jokes sprinkled with irrelevant answers. (On reflection, that probably does work if you're a Republican.)

  • Ron Byers on May 20, 2011 10:37 AM:

    The damn captcha machine told me I couldn't back up if I had to think about the captcha.

    Anyway, what I posted was there goest the lame stream media with their gotcha questions.

  • ManOutOfTime on May 20, 2011 10:48 AM:

    Really? Actually, Steve, I'm no longer sure that T-Paw does want to be POTUS. I'm not running - not even remotely qualified - and I could answer that question. In fact, I could make the case for Obama passionately, and doing a good job of faking the answers for each of the Repugs. There is no fire in T-Paw's belly - I think he would rather be drinking beer and playing hockey. By 2013, one way or the other, he will be ...

  • NHCt on May 20, 2011 11:34 AM:

    I just can't understand people who think this guy has a real shot at the nomination. He's just a black hole, a less-charismatic Lamar Alexander from back in the day, if such a thing is possible. He's been running full--time for a year and still can't crack five percent. The more this drags on, the more Romney seems like the only one, despite all his flaws, who can pull together enough money, organization, and personal drive to get the delegates needed to be the nominee. And then Obama will thump him like a drum.

  • jvwalt on May 20, 2011 11:38 AM:

    Honest Pawlenty:

    "Three reasons. First, the Republican field is so laughably weak, I figured I could win the nomination blindfolded. Second, I couldn't possibly be a worse President than Bush, so I'll be a Republican hero by comparison. Finally, those great Pawlenty campaign trailers give me a boner."

  • JS on May 20, 2011 12:00 PM:

    It'll look good on my resume?

  • Stetson Kennedy on May 20, 2011 12:06 PM:

    I may be parsing too much here, but in fairness to Pawlenty, he wasn't asked why he wanted to be president, he was asked when he decided to run.

    I'm not sure why it makes a difference. No one gives the real reason, which is to be the most powerful person on the planet (well...after the Koch brothers!).

  • bdop4 on May 20, 2011 12:46 PM:

    "T-Paw" is a dim bulb amid a field of dim bulbs. If you put them all together, you might have enough for a nightlight.

  • DRF on May 20, 2011 1:06 PM:

    Pawlenty should have had a better answer, but the truth is that questions like this are generally a waste of time and space. The answer any politician gives to this question is likely to be dishonest, since no one wants to admit that the motivation to run for President is more about ego, ambition, psychic satisfaction and the desire to "be in charge", rather than any altruistic, public-minded reasons.

  • N.Wells on May 20, 2011 1:09 PM:

    I agree with Stetson Kennedy: Pawlenty was clearly asked when, not why, and he gave a good answer to that (to paraphrase, he didn't know when; he & his wife talked about it endlessly [so clearly he wanted to run), but he couldn't say for sure exactly when he decided to go for it.). There's nothing wrong with that.

  • beejeez on May 20, 2011 2:30 PM:

    You don't ask a presidential candidate when he made a decision to run because you want to know the date and time. You ask because you want to know what blend of current events and personal development coincided for that moment to arrive. Pawlenty answered the question honestly -- it wasn't anything in particular. That tells me a tremendous amount about Pawlenty. It tells me that his presidency isn't based on his drive to serve the public to the best of his abilities; it isn't that he thinks he has a dynamic, let alone unique, set of skills to bring to the office. It tells me that he and his wife talked about it and he set up a committee.

    Thanks for coming in, Mr. Pawlenty. It was nice talking to you, but I don't think this job is quite right for you. Best of luck in your future career. Would you like your resume back?

  • Mark on May 20, 2011 2:56 PM:

    jvwalt's answer was the best - I almost spat coffee all over myself. And since any news item featurung the stupid things Republicans say always primes me to laugh anyway, that down-home, Jubilation T. Cornpone analysis fit perfectly.

  • N.Wells on May 20, 2011 9:32 PM:

    Beejeez: You don't ask a presidential candidate when he made a decision to run because you want to know the date and time. You ask because you want to know what blend of current events and personal development coincided for that moment to arrive.

    I agree that that would be a much more common question. However, the reporter might have misphrased his question, or might have been angling for an answer along the lines of 'I've wanted to be president since winning the election for homeroom monitor in second grade', or it could have been a natural question if Pawlenty had already talked a bit about the material in the quoted second paragraph about the difficulty in deciding whether or not to run. Regardless, Pawlenty seems to me to have give a straightforward and unembarrassing answer to the question that he was actually asked, rather than to the one that you and most reporters would have asked.

  • yellowdog on May 21, 2011 5:18 AM:

    The question for all GOP candidates is what they intend to run on exactly. It was extreme vagueness that got them through in 2010. They promised massive cuts in government spending (without naming where particularly), criticized Dems for 'cutting Medicare,' and made their usual patriotic appeals to old white voters. It worked very well. The scene looks a lot different now, when those GOP winners in 2010 have been doing things in office they never mentioned on the campaign trail and claiming a public mandate for it. No way. Their agenda is just not broadly popular, certainly not outside the GOP faithful. So what exactly can a GOP presidential candidate say, after the playing of "I'm Proud to be an American" stops and it's his/her turn to say what a GOP administration will actually -do- if put in power? The Koch agenda, which is the script they all have to follow, is not exactly comforting to folks outside the GOP. Massive cuts in Medicare are not all that popular after all. So what brings the fire in the belly to a Republican candidate? Gee, I'd like to be remembered for cutting taxes for the super-wealthy and making our health system much worse than it was when I took over? Does not have the ring of historical greatness to it. And if they have nothing credible to say on jobs or middle-class economic insecurity--and they do not--then they will have to try to generate enthusiasm through dog-whistles and cultural nonsense. The Koch Brothers have bought and paid for the GOP, but one thing they cannot buy is genuine fire in the belly from candidates like Pawlenty who are smart enough to realize the Brothers' agenda is mostly foolhardy. You have to act it, Tim. Act it.

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