Paul Greenberg

And so it begins. Well before the actual election year. The candidates report for their auditions like inmates volunteering for the asylum's talent show. Or maybe the prison rodeo would be a better comparison when you consider all the bucking and rearing involved in an American presidential campaign. Some of the riders will get thrown early, like Minnesota's former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who's now also a former presidential candidate.

When it comes to seeking the presidency of the United States, many are called, or call themselves, but fewer and fewer are chosen, as the great winnowing-out proceeds from primaries to conventions to the final competition in the fall, when the morning after Election Day, the lone survivor must face an even greater challenge: being president of these United States.

What's remarkable is not that so many presidential hopefuls fall by the wayside but that so many volunteer for the bumpy ride in the first place -- despite all the slings and arrows sure to come their way. Those of us who sit up here in the cheap seats throwing darts salute you who actually enter the dusty arena and take your chances with that fickle Caesar, the great American public.

Some candidates eventually prove great presidents -- a Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt -- and win eternal honor, or at least deserve to. Others are more like Jimmy Carter and the current occupant of the Oval Office. (Even as an ex-president, Mr. Carter has proven a flop.) Still others drop out of the race early and are never heard from again, lucky enough to spend the rest of their lives well out of the glare of floodlights.

Tim Pawlenty is to be congratulated. There are many advantages to being a former candidate no longer at the beck and insistent call of campaign consultants, big contributors, and any bore who's got a gripe, obsession, pet project or just stray idea he wants to share. At great length.

There is much to be said for the comforts of obscurity. Even if Emily Dickinson needed only a few exquisite couplets to sum up the joy of not being noticed:

I'm nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!

They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!

How public, like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!

As for those who manage to climb to the very top of the greasy presidential pole, they may find the job isn't quite as simple as they'd painted it. Hope isn't easy to keep alive, at least not on the massive scale a presidential candidate must. And as for change, it isn't always for the better.

The stubborn unemployment rate that refuses to subside, a national debt that grows from alarming to crushing, a Great Recession that won't go away. No wonder there's a sense of that old devil Malaise in the air. Again the word stagflation is heard in the land, and some of the leftier economists say a little inflation (which has a way of becoming a lot) would be a fine thing. As in the Carter years? Please.

Where's perspective when you need it? Or a candidate who can promise us a New Beginning with a Reaganesque smile, and, more impressive, deliver it?

Only a brave few are born to be happy warriors in politics. Others grow grumpy behind their artificial cheer. Oh, the strain of maintaining all those smiles! It can't be good for the mental health, being called on to fake authenticity every moment on the campaign trail.

Something tells me there's going to be a lot of partisan huffery-and-puffery going around, like any other infectious disease, before this presidential campaign is mercifully concluded. The tendency to rationalize may be universal among humans. Regardless of race, creed, color, national origin or political party. Maybe it comes with being a member of the species risibly called Homo sapiens. But 'tis the season for buck-passing and blame-shifting. A season that may only have just begun, even if it already seems old.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.