Tag: Cult of the Presidency

“Consider Some History”

As a battered and weary country peers into the hellmouth of Election 2016, contemplating the “bleak choice between a ‘liar’ and your ‘drunk uncle,’” along come two of (Anglo-) America’s premier public intellectuals with a plan for getting honest, sober policies out of our next president. “We urge the next president to establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers,” Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison write in this month’s Atlantic. Modeled on the Council of Economic Advisers, the CHA would bring together the country’s finest historical minds, backed by a professional staff, to help close the “history deficit” at 1600 Pennsylvania.

It’s one of those buzzworthy notions that seems ingenious on first airing—a presidential “Dream Team of Historians”!—but gets less shiny the closer you examine it. 

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., speaking truth to JFK's power!Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: speaking truth to JFK’s power

“I think there would be more than enough work for a council of applied historians,” says Harvard’s Allison. What kind of work? As Ferguson and Allison envision it, the Council could help presidents avoid unforced historical errors, like the invasion of Iraq. When Bush “chose to topple Saddam Hussein,” they write, “he did not appear to fully appreciate either the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims,” and “he failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of his actions would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East—Iran.”

It’s a fair critique, but neither Ferguson nor Allison is in a great position to make it. It wasn’t what either of them were saying at the time.

During the war fever of 2002-03, Ferguson wasn’t urging the administration to rethink the Iraq adventure, lest they inadvertently empower Iran–he was cheering the disaster on. “By showing them just how easily Saddam’s vicious little tyranny could be overthrown,” he wrote in the Daily Mail (“Empire of the Gun,” June 21, 2003), “Mr. Bush has made it clear to the leaders of Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia that he is in deadly earnest. If their countries continue to sponsor terrorism as all three notoriously do, Saddam’s fate could befall them too. Such saber-rattling evidently works.” Further: “Historians may well look back on 2003 as a turning point in the troubled politics of the Middle East. And they will give much of the credit for that transformation to the courageous and undoubtedly risky strategy adopted by President George Bush.” Just the hard truths Bush needed to hear!

Download Cult of the Presidency for Free!

Download my book for free!

Last week, the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait praised Cult of the Presidency, and the Economist quoted the book.  Which reminds me, I provided a link in my last post, but forgot to stress the fact that we’re now literally giving it away with free online downloads (especially nice for those of you who are Kindle owners).

With presidential “daddyism” rampant, and our National Father-Protector’s manifest failure to protect us from oil spills and tornadoes, there couldn’t be a better time to check out the comprehensive libertarian indictment (if I do say so myself) of the presidency, the very model of a modern constitutional monstrosity.

Download it here.

Cult Watch

Download my book for free!

Driving home the other night, I caught the end of the NPR program “On Point.” This edition, running the ideological gamut all the way from left to center-left, featured Bob Kuttner and Jonathan Alter, “on the Obama presidency and the oil spill challenge.” At about 45:20 in, Alter took the week’s prize for utterly creepy views of the presidency (no small feat):

One thing I want to make clear where Bob and I strongly really agree is that – when FDR died the funeral procession moved up Pennsylvania avenue and a man, a grieving man, fell to his knees, and another man helped him to his feet and said, “Did you know the President?”

And the grieving man said, “No, but he knew me.”

And Barack Obama is not yet at a point where the American people really feel like he knows them and their problems and that’s where he needs to get to.

Yes, if only our president could emit from his concern-furrowed brow rays of inspiration so powerful, they’d make Americans swoon in the street like holy rollers at an Appalachian snake-handling session – then and only then will we know our democracy is truly healthy.

“Man is a toad-eating animal,” the early 19th-century English essayist and political radical William Hazlitt wrote in 1819: “naturally a worshiper of idols and a lover of kings.” That’s a pretty pessimistic take on humanity as a whole, but it certainly holds true for a good many public intellectuals.

You Feel Me?

The MoDo column I criticize below exemplifies the warped notion that we should view the president as a benevolent national Father-Protector.  But it’s also a good example of a related phenomenon, the apparently unquenchable yearning for Presidential Empathy.

“Once more,” she writes, “President Spock”  has “willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.”  There’s a little tension between Dowd’s desire for a presidential father figure and her demand for a “Feeler in Chief.”  She seems to want a daddy who cries a lot.

But this understanding of the president’s role is hardly unique to her:

Introducing his 1996 presidential ranking survey, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. declared that a great president needed to “have a deep connection with the needs, anxieties, dreams of the people.” Of course, the ability to channel the collective soul of the American volk isn’t a skill that the chief magistrate needs in order to faithfully execute the laws or defend the country from foreign attacks.

Maybe so, but most public intellectuals have a much broader view of the president’s job.  Which may explain why disdain for Obama’s “No Drama” affect is so common among the chattering classes.

This president is too cool, too reserved, too professorial, they charge.  He has “a stony, cool temperament,” (Peggy Noonan);  His “above-the-fray mien… does not communicate empathy” (Richard Cohen), and he shrinks from “lead[ing] the nation emotionally” (Jon Meacham). “I wasn’t feeling it,” MoDo’s Times colleague Charles Blow grumbled after Obama insisted he was “angry” about the spill.  (Really, press secretary Joe Gibbs insisted yesterday, “I’ve seen rage from him.” He “clenched” his jaw.)

I have more than my share of complaints about this president.  But this is one that leaves me, er, cold.  It seems to me that it’s to Obama’s credit that he’s not a blubbery empath like Bill Clinton.  It’s good that he’s reluctant to play the role of podium-pounding blustery populist.  Thank God for small favors.

Over the last century, the Framers’ limited, businesslike presidency has been transformed into an extraconstitutional monstrosity that promises everything and guarantees nothing, save public frustration and the steady growth of state power.  When American “opinion leaders” join together to lament the fact that the president’s not an effective enough demagogue, it’s not hard to understand how we got here.

Cultwatch: Union Station, New York Times

obamastoreSnapped this pic at DC’s Union Station this afternoon, on my way from the Amtrak platform to the Metro (where the machine dispensed a metrocard featuring a grinning BHO). Readers planning to visit DC will be happy to know that you can get all your Obama-related tchotchkes and talismans in one convenient locale right after you get off the train.

Say what you will about hapless Jerry Ford, but he had this going for him: nobody ever thought of making an action figure in his image.

In other cult-related news, today’s New York Times has an “Op-Extra” sidebar,with “excerpts from Opinion Online.” Our friend Judith Warner, last seen discussing cougar fantasies about “sex with the president,” weighs in about the shirtless Obama cover on the current Washingtonian:

“Just as having a president who can string a sentence together with subject-verb agreement makes us all look a little bit smarter, just as having a really admirable family in the White House makes us all seem a little less dysfunctional, perhaps having a president who can look good in a bathing suit is in some bizarre way good for the nation.”

Yeah, I mean, God knows it’s been good for Russia.

Cato Scholars Address Obama’s First Speech to Congress

President Barack Obama’s first address to Congress laid out a laundry list of new spending contained within the stimulus legislation and provided hints as to what will be contained in the budget - a so-called “blueprint for America’s future” - he’ll submit to the legislature. Cato Institute scholars Chris Edwards, Jim Harper, Gene Healy, Neal McCluskey, David Rittgers, John Samples and Michael D. Tanner offer their analyses of the President’s non-State-of-the-Union Address.

Subscribe to Cato’s video podcast here and Cato’s YouTube channel here.