It takes a special type of person to think him or herself a good fit for the job description, “Leader of the Free World.” And by special, I mean intensely competitive, eminently ambitious, and confident to the point of either megalomania or narcissism. (As Bertrand Russell said, “The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men of history.”) Certainly such a person must at times view the Oval Office in the same way that George Mallory viewed the summit Everest: as an ultimate symbol of achievement, to be sought for little reason other than, “Because it is there.”
Accordingly, I feel a diehard mountaineer, with his or her unique set of skills and personality traits, would make an interesting president. I’m not talking about Paul Ryan and his dubious claims of fourteener domination, but the real, flinty-eyed alpinist who takes perverse pleasure in the pain of extreme altitude, brutal cold, and the incessant object hazards of the mountain environment. Some reasons why include:
- Meticulous preparation, plus adaptability – A mountain “objective” requires extensive reconnaissance. Little surprise then that alpinists are known for their obsessive intel gathering: What are the ideal seasons for a given climb? How many days can I expect to be on the mountain, and what is the minimum of food and water I can bring to make my safe return likely? What are the crux sections? What are my plans for retreat? What gear will be enough to see me through without weighing me down? Who should I partner with? There are many things to consider, and even after the climber has considered them all, there is still a chance that bad luck will nullify much of that preparation. Likewise, a good president must know the context of his or her decisions and understand both the scope and pitfalls of a given objective, all the while accepting that no amount of preparation will ensure a perfect, or even favorable outcome.
- Appreciation for nature - It is a rare alpinist who can keep close quarters with the natural world and not hold a deep reverence for its splendor. How, then, could a climber president help but stand as an environmentalist in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, creator of our National Park System? A mountaineer as president would not hesitate to protect our precious wild places from the relentless creep of human greed.
- Toughness and tenacity - Pain and exhaustion are the bread and butter of the mountain climber’s diet. One need only read classic mountaineering books like The White Spider, by Heinrich Harrer, or more contemporary stuff like the words of Mark Twight, to see that it is pointless to attempt mountains without embracing suffering. Near the summit of Mt. Everest, to use a well-worn example, one enters the “death zone,” above which the human body begins an oxygen-deprived descent into delirium and expiration. Of course, If a person likes things “easy,” he or she does not become a mountaineer. So must a great president not fear but embrace the certain difficulties of the office, relish the challenge, dive headlong into the task of leading a country through ever-treacherous waters.
- A larger perspective - From a perch above the clouds, where mountains multiply ad infinitum, where you can see weather moving in from a great distance, where perhaps a bird or two loops listlessly in the unseen currents of the atmosphere, here does the climber’s perspective draw its context. The climber sees a world measured by a bigger unit than the inch or foot or even mile. Mountains are measured on a tectonic scale, formed over eons by the meeting of two great plates, and worn away over many eons more by freezes and thaws, by water and wind. Who wouldn’t want in their president that eye for the stretch of human history and the vast motions of the geologic clock? All too often, the political landscape forces leaders to make decisions that suit only the next electoral cycle. A grander perspective — and the resolve to incorporate it into one’s decisions — is required for truly great governance, though at the same time, one must not lose sight of the needs of the moment. A difficult balance, to be sure.
- A willingness to turn around – It is hard to imagine a president saying, “I was wrong. We are changing course now for the greater good.” The political repercussions of admitting defeat, or suggesting that a new direction is what’s needed, must seem too dire. Still, when a climber plans to turn back from a summit push, he or she must stick to that plan, even when the summit looms in sight. Many a climber has pushed on past the cutoff time… and paid the price with his or her life. It takes a level of humility and discipline to turn back or change course. A climber, especially one leading a team, must put the lives of his or her team ahead of a lust for glory. A president, when leading a nation, must put first the good of the country, and not be swayed by the prospect of additional gain, power, or influence.
- Realistic risk assessment - Often in this world, we are afraid of things that pose little threat (sharks, bird flu, communism). At the same time, we think little of the truly risky behaviors we engage in every day: driving a car, eating junk food while sitting at a desk for nine hours straight, shopping at Wal-Mart on Black Friday. On every outing, a mountain climber must ask, “Is it safer here to tie in and offer a belay for my partner, or would it be best to keep moving, fast but untethered?” Many times in the mountains, moving slow, safe, and steady is actually a great risk. If a storm blows in or night falls too soon, hypothermia can claim you as easily as a fall. A president is faced every day with questions of life and death. He or she must see the risks as clearly as possible and make decisions based on the most likely and best possible outcome, not based on irrational fear or a paralyzing need for safety. I do not imagine there have been many presidents whose decisions haven’t led directly to many deaths. Such a position is no place for muddy thinking.
- A strong sense of ethics - Someone once said, “There is no cheating in climbing — only lying.” As a climber you adhere to a certain core of ethics when shit gets tough not because a referee is watching, but because you are climbing for yourself, and you have yourself to answer to. A president also needs a strong core of beliefs and ethics and a willingness to stick to them, even when the media, the Facebook commenters and all the senators are crying for blood. Such deep fortitude is a goodly part of what we want in a president, even though the modern political system seems to encourage just the opposite.
- Travels well - Any serious alpinist will spend a great deal of his or her time on the road. Flights to Alaska, Nepal, France, Pakistan, Canada — travel is unavoidable, as prime objectives are rarely found in one’s backyard. Too, a climber must be comfortable with the food, customs, and languages of foreign lands. So will the president spend many of his days in the air and far from home. It is a part of the job, and he or she should embrace it, both for the good of personal growth and of international diplomacy.
- Cool in the face of danger - Fear should never be the basis of one’s decisions in the mountains. Even when fear grips, with its metallic tang and sphincter clench, the good alpinist (hopefully) has enough rational brainpower left to assess the situation — even if that assessment must take place in seconds. Fear is the voice of our basal ganglia pressing us into flight or fight mode. Fear doesn’t see the big picture — it sees the world through a funnel and sees only one option when many hover in the periphery. No human with the launch codes to a massive nuclear arsenal should lack the ability to face fear and still operate on a well-reasoned level.
Unfortunately, there is one overwhelming reason why a dyed-in-the-wood alpinist would be a terrible president: He or she would not take well to a life behind a desk. Not when there are all those peaks out there, solitary, wind scoured, free from the incessant critiques, and demands of a the nation and the world.