The price of presidential ambition

The 2016 election has cost both major candidates much more than just time and money. Was it worth it?

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump allowed their lives to be scrutinized.
(Image credit: Illustrated | DESK/AFP/Getty Images)

"Presidential campaigns are like MRIs for the soul," said David Axelrod, Barack Obama's former chief strategist, during the bruising 2012 campaign. This time around, the vetting of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has been far more invasive than an MRI — like a colonoscopy, perhaps, or open-heart surgery without anesthesia. When they decided to run for president, Trump and Clinton must have known that the price of their ambition would be steep. But surely they did not imagine how many of their secrets would be revealed, how toxic the campaign would be, or how much damage and humiliation they — and those around them — would suffer in their quest for the world's most powerful job.

When Clinton left the State Department three years ago, she was among the country's most admired people, with a sky-high approval rating of 69 percent. No one knew or cared that she had used a private email server. No one was paying attention to the deep entanglement of the Clinton Foundation, the State Department, and the favor seekers who paid Bill and Hillary millions for speeches and "consulting'' work. Had she not run, the bodies of the Clinton sex scandals would not have been disinterred to stalk the horrified Bill and Chelsea at a debate. Had Trump not run, he could have continued basking in the attention of his reality-TV show and marketing his brand as the epitome of success. His gilded empire would not have been exposed as a Potemkin palace, behind which lay dumb business decisions, massive losses, and embarrassing tax returns. His charitable foundation would not have been exposed as a fraud. His barbarous assaults on women would be known only to his victims.

Still, after just a few more weeks of misery, the survivor of this Shakespearean tragedy will be elected president. Will the victor think it was all worth it — especially since the inquisitions and hatred will have just begun?

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William Falk

William Falk is editor-in-chief of The Week, and has held that role since the magazine's first issue in 2001. He has previously been a reporter, columnist, and editor at the Gannett Westchester Newspapers and at Newsday, where he was part of two reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes.