By Frank Bruni
New York Times
In the formal announcement of his presidential campaign on Monday, Scott Walker mentioned God right away, introduced himself as a preacher's son and invoked religion repeatedly, as he has throughout a perpetual candidacy that stretches back to his college days, when he told the Marquette University yearbook: "I really think there's a reason why God put all these political thoughts in my head."
But what I see in him is the kind of soullessness too common in American politicians and the kind of careerism that makes American politics such a dreary spectacle.
I see an ambition even more pronounced than any ideology. I see an interest in personal advancement that eclipses any investment in personal growth.
These are hardly unusual traits in our halls of government. But they're distilled in Walker, the governor of Wisconsin.
He's styling himself as a political outsider, but that's a fluke of geography, not professional history. While it's true that he hasn't worked in Washington, he's a political lifer, with a résumé and worldview that are almost nothing but politics.
He's been on one Wisconsin ballot or another almost every two years over the last quarter-century, and he's only 47. Before the governorship, he was a state assemblyman and then a county executive.
We know from the biographies of him so far that he has been absorbed in those "political thoughts" since at least the start of college, before he could have possibly developed any fully considered, deeply informed set of beliefs or plan for what to do with power.
I suspect that we'll learn, with just a bit more digging, that he was mulling campaign slogans in the womb and ran his first race in the neighborhood wading pool, pledging to ease restrictions on squirt guns and usher in a ban on two-piece bathing suits.
He has drawn barbs for the fact that he left Marquette before graduating and was many credits shy of a degree. But I know plenty of people whose intellectual agility and erudition aren't rooted in the classroom, and his lack of a diploma isn't what's troubling.
The priorities that conspired in it are. He was apparently consumed during his sophomore year by a (failed) bid for student body president. According to a story by David Fahrenthold in The Washington Post, he was disengaged from, and cavalier about, the acquisition of knowledge. And he dropped out right around the time he commenced a (failed) candidacy for the Wisconsin state Senate - in his early 20s.
Walker's cart has a way of getting ahead of Walker's horse. Only after several flubbed interviews earlier this year were there reports that he was taking extra time to bone up on world affairs. This was supposed to be a comfort to us, but what would really be reassuring is a candidate who had pursued that mastery already, out of honest curiosity rather than last-minute need.
When allies and opponents talk about his strengths, they seem to focus not on his passion for governing but on his cunning at getting elected. "He's a sneaky-smart campaigner, they say, a polished and levelheaded tactician, a master at reading crowds," wrote Kyle Cheney and Daniel Strauss in Politico. "He learned the value of ignoring uncomfortable questions, rather than answering them." What an inspiring lesson, and what a window into political success today.
He tailors his persona to the race at hand. To win his second term as governor of Wisconsin and thus be able to crow, as he's doing now, about the triumph of a conservative politician "in a blue state," he played down his opposition to abortion, signaled resignation to same-sex marriage and explicitly supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
But with his current focus on the Iowa caucuses, he no longer supports a path to citizenship, flaunts his anti-abortion credentials and has called for a constitutional amendment permitting states to outlaw same-sex marriage. He even has a newfound affection for ethanol.
His advisers, meanwhile, trumpet his authenticity. Authenticity? That's in tragically short supply in the presidential race, a quality that candidates assert less through coherent records, steadfast positions or self-effacing commitments than through what they wear (look, Ma, no jacket or necktie!) and even how they motor around. Walker is scheduled to trundle through Iowa later this week in a Winnebago, and of course Hillary Clinton traveled there from New York in that Scooby van.
"I love America," Walker said in Monday's big speech. That was his opening line and an echo of what so many contenders say.
I trust that they all do love this country. But from the way they pander, shift shapes and scheme, I wonder if they love themselves just a little more.