In 1979, CBS’s Roger Mudd sat down with Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was poised to take on President Carter in a Democratic primary. Mudd asked the most obvious and straightforward of questions: “Why do you want to be president?” Kennedy sat silently for an uncomfortably long time, before delivering an awkward, two-minute answer in which he didn’t mention himself at all.

The exchange quickly became infamous, and every presidential campaign since has prepped their candidate to be able to answer that question without hesitation. Those who want to lead the nation and hold the world’s most powerful office are expected to not only show the proverbial “fire in the belly,” but also be able to articulate why they hear the call and believe they are uniquely suited to serve.

I’m a little surprised Tim Pawlenty isn’t better able to talk about this. Here’s what happened when Time‘s Michael Crowley pressed the former Minnesota governor on the central rationale for his candidacy. (via Ben Smith)

[W]hen I ask Pawlenty, during a second interview in Des Moines, Iowa, exactly when he decided he was up to the grand challenge of the presidency, he answers in less than grandiose terms, explaining how he’d set up a political-action committee in 2009. I try again, saying I am curious about when he first imagined himself worthy of the history books, ready to send soldiers to their deaths and endure the national stage’s harsh toll. “I don’t know,” he replies. “I wish I had a good answer for you on that.”

Pawlenty says it is not an idea that crossed his mind 15 or 20 years ago but that as he considered life as a relatively young ex-governor, he felt obliged not to take the easy path and “go make some money and play hockey and drink beer.” He adds that he almost didn’t run at all. “Mary and I talked about this at length, and many times, and it was a close call,” he says, mentioning his wife of 24 years. He adds with a laugh, “It could have gone the other way for all the reasons you’re suggesting.”

I don’t doubt Pawlenty wants to be president, but he should probably come up with “a good answer” as to why.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.