Sunday, November 06, 2016

His Majesty the President

A couple of my friends have written thoughtful posts recently about the way we treat Presidents - not just the formal protocols of address, but what we think we mean when we speak of "respecting the office." How much personal adulation is a President entitled to in a republic? To what extent is he (soon she, I think) entitled to a pass from criticism, under what circumstances?

So this morning I'm reading this book about the very first Congress, in March of 1789, when the whole circus was brand new and nobody was happy about it, and the first order of business for the United States Senate was how to address the President.

"After calling the Senate to order, [John] Adams immediately threw off conventional procedural restraints as presiding officer and pressed the Senate to consider as its first order of business of how to address the President. Infatuated by the pomp of European courts he had visited as an American minister during the Revolutionary War, he suggested 'Your Highness' or 'Your Most Benign Highness' as appropriate titles for the President. In a scene that would have delighted Lemuel Gulliver in Lilliput, twenty-two of America's most learned and powerful statesmen responded with complex arguments supporting 'His Exalted Highness,' 'His Elective Highness,' 'Most Illustrious and Excellent President,' and even 'His Majesty the President.' When one senator proposed calling the President 'George,' another snapped in response, 'Why not George IV?'
"A few senators protested Adams's intrusion in the debate as a blatant violation of customary procedures, with one protestor ridiculing the Vice President as 'His Rotundity.' Others were less oblique, stating that the President was neither a king nor an emperor and entitled to no title but 'George' - certainly not 'George I.'"

[From Mr. President: George Washington and the Making of the Nation’s Highest Office, by Harlow Giles Unger.]
Personally, I lean toward the austere republican view. I do not require the “First Lady” to wear beautiful clothes nor the house to plated in gold and clink with rare china. While visiting heads of state should be treated with comfort and style, I would prefer state dinners to be modest and humble - at least until such time as all Americans are fed. With room and board and other services and privileges provided to Presidents and their families, the salary should also be modest - at least until such time as all Americans receive living wages and decent treatment in their workplace (indeed, they should be part owners in their own workplaces and participate in self-management).

Washington settled for “Mr. President,” which is regal enough. The sometimes quasi-monarchical affection for a President has its opposite in the kind of fanatical opposition we also see - something Washington himself thought about as he struggled to get from Mount Vernon to New York, stopping at every point for celebrations with cannon fire, fireworks, and speeches that elevated him to Olympus. He wrote in letters and his own diary that these energies were not only embarrassing but unsettling. He understood the other side to that kind of mass affection for leaders.

Of one friend of mine who proclaimed a civic virtue of displaying deference to the President, I asked this question: While we can surely understand an elected President is entitled to some decorum whether we are pleased with their service or not, is there a boundary? Can a President lose their title to our personal esteem? For me, this is actually not a hypothetical question. There was a point in 2005 where I stopped using the word “President” in front of George W. Bush’s name, and in his presence I would not have stood (except to turn my back on him, as he had turned his back on us). In light of the Iraq invasion and the stunningly incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, the official sanction for torture and mass surveillance, I no longer felt I owed him any deference. I am no monarchist; I do not hold to any notion of “my President right or wrong.” It is his good fortune that Congress did not have the conscience and political will to impeach him - the grounds were there. He deserves a trial in the Hague. Instead, he now receives a pension, continued Secret Service protection, high speaking fees, and more than enough ceremonial pomp when he makes appearances. He will die in more comfort than far worthier men. He doesn’t need my ceremonial respect. He was an officer of the republic, and not a very distinguished one at that.

It is, rather, for Presidents to pay honor to people, to lift their hats to the worker, and advocate for people’s welfare in proportion to their oppression rather than their access to wealth and influence. I understand this goes against our actual history: we have from the start been a republic that believes in a ruling class out of democratic reach, where plutocratic sentiments (that wealth has better standing to govern) were once openly expressed.

Yet I cannot shake the notion that Thomas Paine helped instilled in us, that we have standing to steer history otherwise. It is because of this standing that we can look a President in the eye, assess the person, and call that person by their personal name.

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