Abraham and Sarah

“Today, I wrote about kittens. We’re in a gigantic financial crisis, everybody knows it, everybody is going crazy about it, everybody else is writing about it, so sometimes the best thing to do is write about kittens.”

—  Jon Carroll, quoted last month by his paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, on winning
the 2009 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

It’s all here, in the U.S. Constitution and amendments. Except for what isn’t in it. Like, “Any child can grow up to be president.”

I heard that at school. It’s not something my parents would say at home.

In my childhood, in the years shortly after ratification in 1788, the promise was a goad. A goad is like a goal but with a large croquet mallet above the kid’s head. Oh my goodness, the blunt object is figurative, for heaven’s sake.

“Any child can grow up to be president” means any child who does well in school, does chores cheerfully and without prompting, and plays well with others, all these things year after year after year, can become leader of America. This is how Bill Clinton became president, and Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, too.

I think the maxim was true enough. If you followed it at the least you became a decent human being, little trouble to others. Whether one wanted to be president of the country was another matter. Whether one would be any good at the presidency was also worth consideration when filling out college applications.

(Me? As a boy I was extraordinarily well-behaved. But I grew up wanting to be a nonconformist. Oh well.)

How the phrase is understood now must have evolved. With decades of self-esteem — every child takes home a trophy — overriding learning how to win and lose — by winning and losing — the “any child” means if you are a native-born U.S. citizen (beyond your control) and if you hit 35 years of age (eating and breathing should take care of that), you can be president.

It’s old-fashioned to think that what this country needs are brilliant, maniacally self-disciplined leaders well-practiced in both team leadership and taking advice. Abe Lincoln is said to be the inspiration for the aphorism. And that such leaders practice what they believe, that democracy works and civil rights define freedom. Old-fashioned once was a patronizing but spot-on definition of conservatism. Now, expediency and cynicism are.

With a clicker and a handful of kibble, we’ve trained Tiki the former alley cat to hop over a cane and leap from chair to chair on command. At age 7, he is in his 40s in human years and without a doubt is native born. He brims with self-confidence. Pound cat Rosemary, a year (and a decade) younger, will leave the sunny window for clicker training about every third time — my kind of gal.

If I rummaged in the shed I might find a bicycle tire. Tiki would have no trouble picking up jumping through hoops. But to what end?