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Hummel Column: Why would anybody want to be president?

Here's an easy question -- what do the following folks have in common: Tommy Thompson, Chuck Hegel, Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, Fred Thompson, Ron Paul, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Hukabee, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Mike Gravel, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? Of course -- six months ago they all wanted to be president. Presumably they still do, but now the list of contenders is down to four or five. But here's a tougher question: Why would anybody want to be president?

This article started on President's Day, so in keeping with respect for the holiday, mail service is suspended, flags are flown, courthouses are closed and questions about the presidency are pondered.

Lincoln was certainly not typical of our presidents, but we can learn from Honest Abe who was probably the greatest of them all. Four miles from home to school he walked and four miles home again, but as Abe himself told "all my schooling did not amount to one year." As he said later, he "picked up education." Lincoln claimed his only ambition was "that of being truly esteemed by my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem." He said this in 1832, running for the legislature of Illinois. He lost. He ran again in 1834 and got the seat and held it for four two-year terms. He lost more elections along the way but was elected to a single term in Congress in 1846. Lincoln's political career up to 1860 was hit and miss -- most undistinguished. No man was less likely to become president than Abraham Lincoln. But once in office -- for four of the most miserable years in American history -- he was determined to complete his task. As Carl Sandberg wrote in "Abraham Lincolon, The Prairie Years and the War Years," "Conscience and expediency told him that he in justice should continue to be the instrument of the American people to finish the war and if might be, to bind up the wounds and heal the scars without malice." As to the desire to be president, he confessed in a weak moment "No man knows what that gnawing is until he has had it."

There it is -- men (and women) run for president to finish the war, bind up the wounds and heal the scars. And the drive to do that is a gnawing. Many have felt that gnawing, but there never was (and never will be) another Abraham Lincoln.

But some were elected not during the wars but after. Three great generals, George Washington, U.S. ("Unconditional Surrender") Grant and Dwight Eisenhower, all popular war heroes, responded more to the call of duty than to a gnawing. Of the three, only Washington turned out to be a distinguished president.

In my lifetime, some presidents obviously had that gnawing for the White House: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton. Ford didn't have it and whether Carter and George H. W. Bush had it is not clear. But again the question is: why would anybody want to be president?

Hey, this is America. This is the country where anybody can rise to the top. This is the country where we encourage and laud ambition, enterprise and success. This is the country of achievers and overachievers. It should be no surprise that we have bred a species with the gnawing desire to become president -- to hold the most prestigious office in the world -- to the be "leader of the free world" as it is often expressed. Does this lust for office bring our very best leaders to the front? Not always as we all know. But our system is the best in the world. It is competitive and exciting and the most we can do individually is to encourage those with the greatest talent, character, experience, vision and judgment and boost them to the pinnacle.