Sunday, January 29, 2012

Presidents are not Kings

A peculiar bit of political gossip made the rounds on the internet and political talk shows last week, and at the Burning House we sense in these reactions some unexplored historical emotions. It has to do with how we relate to the president, or the presidency itself.

The "incident" occurred on a runway at an airstrip in Arizona. President Barack Obama landed there for a visit and, in keeping with a common custom, he was greeted by the governor of that state, Jan Brewer. Such a meeting would attract press coverage anyway, but especially in this case since the Obama administration has famously crossed swords with Arizona over that state's immigration laws.

The press was not close enough to overhear what words were exchanged between Governor Brewer and President Obama, but the picture (seen above) suggests that the encounter was not congenial. She is seen in mid-sentence, chin pointed and mouth wide open, with a hand raised and jabbing a finger in the air near his face. The president is also speaking, suggesting they were talking on top of each other. He is leaning either in toward her or away to his right, head bowed, perhaps caught off guard. According to witnesses this was exactly what it looked like: a brief, hot argument between the two, in a public place.

The photograph was a sensation, arousing political commentary that predictably followed partisan preference. By some, Governor Brewer was seen as heroic for putting that uppity muslim marxist president in his place. By those with a different preference, this was considered one in a collection of embarrassing or astonishing stories about Governor Brewer, a collection we won't go into here.

At least two famous liberal media personalities, Lawrence O'Donnell and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, brought in their usual political analysts to discuss whether this behavior by the governor was some sort of affront to the presidency. And indeed, they found some support for this notion. Howard Fineman, in fact, criticized Obama for this incident, saying that a president should never "punch down."

We are now swimming in that troubled adjective, presidential. In the U.S., to seem presidential is synonymous with seeming regal. We relate to our presidents as temporary kings, with the power to wage war (for no one really believes Congress exercises that authority anymore), to set up a court of advisors who run federal departments and agencies, to represent the United States on an international stage, to make a show of concern for the plights of the poor and working classes and rally the populace in times of crisis or grief, and the power to veto legislation.

The cardinal articles of our Constitution portray an elected president as a more humble executive compared to the historic expansion of presidential power and "executive privilege," at the expense of Congressional authority. In 2012, it has reached the point where President Obama can, literally, order me arrested today without presenting any evidence of criminal activity, and suspend any right I have to a legal process of any kind -- I simply disappear, likely to the brig of a navy ship, a la Jose Padilla. The president may also dispense with that and simply have me killed. Detentions and assassinations have gone on before, of course, but now these actions are legal. They do not need to be covered up.

The president's family is called "the First Family," and accorded the status of a royal family in european countries. The family has extensive staff, dine on fine foods, and are expected to appear in beautiful clothing (Pat Nixon's "cloth coat" notwithstanding). First Ladies are expected to engage in good works that confirm the royal-- er, "First" family's love for the people. It was controversial when President Clinton attempted to put his wife into an official policy role, as people felt more comfortable with her in more ceremonial and royal functions.

The president himself (thus far, always a man) is expected to maintain a certain image, the bearing of a dashing corporate CEO, wearing tailored suits and always clean shaven and well groomed. He is part businessman and part king. He must look upper class. He rides in limousines and commands his own plane, ostensibly for security purposes and to allow him space to work while traveling, but also because the president is accorded luxurious amenities. Candidates for president are millionaires and must look like successful business people or aristocrats, i.e. people who do not labor for their living. In part, this reflects the importance of high-level donors, corporate money and "super PAC" funding, in a free-market national campaign.

Working class candidates do not rise high enough in the ranks of the two dominant political parties to stand for president. They may make it into local legislatures or even Congress, but not to the presidency. That office is reserved for the aristocracy. Partly because of image, as described above, and partly because a working-class candidate's ideology would always be suspect. The top of the business class will support the candidate most like them and most responsive to their interests. Thus, we have the aristocratic presidency, with ever expanding power. A constitutional monarch with a limited term of four to eight years.

In all appearances, the president is expected to maintain a sense of high status and decorum. Hence, to engage in an argument with a governor is considered detrimental to his status, or "punching down." It is considered distasteful for a president to be seen arguing or lobbying, and an elaborate system of protocols exist to distance the president personally from the bullpen.

And political writers, along with many citizens, feel awfully protective of "the presidency." There is a subjective line in the sand, and if you cross it, you insult the presidency and thus the country as a whole. It is an indelible, sentimental middle class value: always respect the president, and god save our king.

Speaking personally: bah humbug. I much prefer the spectacle of the British prime minister at the center of the House of Commons, being questioned and heckled by the lawmakers surrounding him (or her!), obligated to respond to their questions, and prepared to debate opponents and defend the government's policies in front of a hostile audience.

(Note: This is why I think one of the finest moments of Obama's presidency was two years ago, when he appeared before the House Republican conference on live television and engaged in spontaneous questions and answers, akin to a Prime Minister's Q&A. Obama did quite well in that venue, which is why the Republicans made sure it never happened again.)

Do not misunderstand, I do not suggest there should be no deference or respect, no decorum whatsoever, for an elected president. But what is up with this royal pedestal to which we elevate these fops? It seems a lingering vestige of our colonial identity, still tethered to an idea that we are subjects of a king (albeit one we vote for, even if the selection is tightly controlled by the wealthy upper class).

This is not an abstract concern. If the president were merely a man and not a king, would the people be so tolerant of the tyrannical powers that our presidents have accumulated, and so unquestioning of our presidents' loyalty to the wealthiest minority at the expense of those who labor?

We certainly wouldn't be making a great fuss over an elected governor lobbying, even arguing, with a president.

It is Thomas Paine's birthday today, and this is a worthy topic for the occasion, for Paine was clear and consistent in his view that the institution of monarchy, and anything resembling it, or the desire for "good kings" to deal with, is a complete bust. To this day, his case against monarchy and inherited power ridicule the present institution of the American presidency. As Paine wrote:

Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.


Kelly said...

You have many excellent points in this post, Algernon.

quid said...

Bah humbug, too. There should be mutual respect, but this concept of the PRESIDENCY is silly. People have a right to express a contrasting opinion to the president. I prefer the British system, too.

And Jan Brewer (sigh). I guess somebody out there likes her. She would not get my vote. But she's still the governor of her state.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Algernon! The problem is that we STILL have a hankering for anything royal. Hence, the continuing obsession with the doings of European monarchs and their familes, the general acceptance of hereditary political office (of course, only to be condoned in one's own political party--not the other!), special opportunities and privileges for children of celebrities/politicians, and most significantly, the fundamental idea that those at the top can do no wrong. Such would help explain why nonperforming or even miserable CEOs still get bonuses when their companies go bust! So yes, we are indeed tethered to the colonial ideal.

Paine would not be happy.

Frances A. Chiu

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

We might be dealing with a fundamental fact of human nature here in this tendency to deify the leader, whether he be president, king, or quarterback. The Brits don't avoid this, they merely obfuscate it by separating the offices of head of state and chief executive.

Maybe a better way would be to make the totem of the tribe - the head of state - some kind of inanimate object, or maybe even an animal. A turtle might make a good choice.