Monday, December 17, 2012

Cult of the Presidency

Watching the media's anticipation of Obama's press conference after the tragic school shooting in Connecticut, I was reminded of the great book The Cult of the Presidency by Gene Healy, where he notes the president is now expected to be, among many other things, the Consoler in Chief, our national chaplain in times of great tragedies. The President originally was someone who would simply officiate the congress, which was the main body for enacting legislation. Just as the senate in the Roman Republic ruled, so the founders wanted the congress to rule the country.  Early Presidents didn't propose bold legislation or even really campaign.

It is now the President’s job to grow the economy, teach our children, provide protection from terrorist threats, and rescue Americans from spiritual malaise. It's an impossible job, yet as our dissatisfaction with the President increases, the amount of power he wields grows. We are morphing towards an emperor, a Putin.

William Hazlit wrote in 1819 that "Man is a toad-eating animal [ie, a toady], naturally a worshipper of idols and a lover of kings." He saw behind this impulse a crave desire to dominate others, even if only vicariously. "Each individual would (were it in his power) be a a king, a God; but as he cannot, the next best thing is to see this reflex image of his self-love, the darling passion of his breast, realized, embodied out of himself in the first object he can lay his hands on for the purpose."

It's not a left-right thing, too many venerate the Elmer Gantrys who become President. Yet a funny anecdote was provided by liberal Nina Burleigh, former White House correspondent for Time magazine, who noted during the Lewinsky scandal that she'd "be happy to give [Clinton oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential knee pads on to show their gratitude for keeping theocracy off our backs." It's nice to see her thinking she's above those who venerate religion, but instead of championing skepticism and rationality, worships the simple hucksters who make all those trite speeches


Anonymous #5 said...

You make it sound like the President was meant to just take minutes at Congressional meetings, and not, say, basically be an elected constitutional monarch. The Constitution gives him the title "Commander in Chief." The President has always been inaugurated in an elaborate ceremony similar to a crowning. The first American President had been head of the army, and his face shows up on currency, the capital is named after him, etc etc.

You're a little behind the times here.

zarkov01 said...

The title "Commander in Chief" applies to the military, not to the country at large. And before WWII the U.S. military was small (compared to today) except for times of war.

The size of the president's staff reveals how we got to the imperial presidency. Lincoln had a secretary, which he paid out of his own pocket. Right up to FDR, the White House staff was small. After that it exploded. In 2000 the WH staff numbered some 5,000 people according to Bradley Patterson in his book The White House Staff. All appointed and not subject to confirmation-- in effect an unelected shadow government. This is one reason Nixon initially appointed Henry Kissinger to be National Security Adviser, and not Secretary of State. Nixon and Kissinger ran foreign policy in the early years independent of State. In this way he sidelined Congress.

Most of us (at least half) don't want a monarch, we want an executive with defined and limited powers. We don't want Washington telling us the size of our flush toilets or what light bulbs we can buy. If this is being "behind the times" then so be it.

Anonymous #5 said...

I don't see what toilet regulation has to do with the simple facts of American history. The position of the President was created with the monarchy in mind. George Washington wasn't elected because people thought he'd be really great at enforcing Robert's Rules of Order. A few years later Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the country, are you familiar with the provision of the Constitution that granted him this power?

Jason G said...

Anon #5, i do not believe that's correct.

Check out this for history:

The term President was meant to be a very meager title. It meant (at the time) simply "presider", as one who heads a meeting, similar to a jury foreman.

I think that is pretty interesting.

Dave Pinsen said...

I think what the commenters above are getting at is that in the US, the president is the head of government as well as the head of state, whereas in constitutional monarchies, such as the UK, or Sweden, those positions are separate (this is also true in some non-monarchies, such as Italy and Israel, which have separate heads of state with the title "president").

The advantage of having a separate head of state is that he or she can attend to funerals and other ceremonial occasions without politicizing them.