Tag: Cult of the Presidency

Imperial Rites

Writing in National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke decries the pharaonic spectacle of the modern presidential funeral. “Whether he was a great man or a poor one, George H. W. Bush was a public employee.” In order to honor his passing, Cooke asks, do we really need to shut down the stock market, postal service, and much of the nation’s capital for a national day of mourning? The whole business marks “another step toward the fetishization of an executive branch whose role is supposed to be more bureaucratic than spiritual.” I’m glad he said it first, but he’s absolutely right.

Our first president, ever conscious of the precedents he could set, didn’t want an elaborate state funeral. “It is my express desire that my Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration,” Washington declared in his will. 

You’ve got to respect that—but, of course, we didn’t. Instead, “there was a massive public funeral at Mount Vernon,” Brady Carlson recounts in his 2016 book Dead Presidents, with a parade organized by Washington’s Masonic lodge, including “musicians, clergy, troops, and a riderless horse, a military tradition reportedly dating back to the age of Genghis Khan”—along with funeral orations by four ministers, topped off with “three general discharges of infantry, the cavalry, and eleven pieces of artillery, which lined the banks of the Potomac.”

The passing of the ninth U.S. president, William Henry Harrison, the first to die in office, set more precedents still. The interminable inaugural address that supposedly killed him featured Whiggish professions of deference to the legislature and the people–the president as a modest “accountable agent, not the principal; the servant, not the master.” Yet, according to the White House Historical Association, ‘the 30-day ceremonials surrounding the death of Harrison were modeled after royal funerals.” “There were bells, cannons, and funeral dirges,” Carlson writes, the White House was draped in black as “the late president and his casket rode in a black and white carriage pulled by six white horses, escorted by a pallbearer for each of the country’s twenty-six states and held up on a raised dais so the ten thousand people who turned up could see.” 

We fought a revolution to rid ourselves of kings, but, ironically enough, in the mother country, the sendoff for a former head of government tends to be decidedly less regal. The last British Prime Minister to get a state funeral was Winston Churchill. The pomp surrounding Margaret Thatcher’s 2013 funeral blurred the lines, a development the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne condemned as a “constitutional innovation… foolish and wrong”: 

Our constitution is defined by a rigorous separation between the head of state (the monarch) and the head of government (the prime minister). This marks us out from other countries, such as the United States of America, where the head of state and chief executive are merged in one person. As Anthony Sampson wrote in the Anatomy of Britain, the advantage of the British system is that “the head of state could represent the nation with all its traditional pomp and splendour, while the head of government appeared in a more workaday role”

Still, the funerals of other recent prime ministers have tended to respect that distinction, typically featuring no more pageantry than might be accorded any prominent private citizen.  

In America, by contrast, presidents are legally entitled to state funerals, whose details are meticulously prescribed in the 133-page Army Pamphlet 1-1. “Regulations say up to four thousand military and civilian support personnel can take part in state funeral services …. And typically the sitting president announces government offices will close for the day of the funeral.” 

The president described in the Federalist was to have “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction.” Yet there’s an unsettling, quasi-mystical orientation toward government at work in much of the ritual. While lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, the president’s body is placed atop the Lincoln Catafalque: the funeral bier constructed for our 16th president–one of the holy relics of the American civil religion. Above him hangs the cathedral-like ceiling, which features the fresco “The Apotheosis of Washington,” painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865. It depicts the first president “sitting amongst the heavens in an exalted manner, or in literal terms, ascending and becoming a god.” I generally find the so-called “New Atheists” insufferable, but we could use a little of their militant impiety when it comes to our presidential cult.  

George H.W. Bush’s funeral arrangements have been comparatively modest as these things go. So were Gerald Ford’s back in 2007. The man who proclaimed himself “a Ford, not a Lincoln” and toasted his own English muffins was praised once again for his humility because he skipped the horse-drawn processional. Instead, his 587-page funeral plan included a motorcade tour of Alexandria with stops at the World War II and Lincoln memorials and a military “missing man” flyover by 21 F-15E Strike Eagles at the burial in Grand Rapids.

The modern presidency, Cooke observes, smacks more of Caesar than of Coolidge. Here, as elsewhere, we could profit from Silent Cal’s example. “Coolidge’s will,” Carlson notes, “was just twenty-three words long, and his funeral ceremony lasted a mere five minutes.” In death, as in life, he was not a nuisance. 

Donald Trump’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior”

As any pedantic patriot can tell you, there’s really no such thing as “Presidents’ Day”–the official name for the federal holiday we celebrated on Monday is “Washington’s Birthday.” And it wasn’t the first president’s actual birthday, which is today, February 22.

Washington had his faults, but, especially when compared to most of those who followed him, he provided an admirable model of probity and restraint. The teenage Washington copied in his own hand 110 precepts on etiquette: “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” and, as I noted recently, they make for a pretty stark contrast with the deportment of 1600 Pennsylvania’s current occupant. So, in honor of Washington’s (actual) Birthday, contemplate the distance between our first president and our 45th, with a selection of Washington’s “Rules”–and Trump’s:

Washington’s “Rules”:

Shew Nothing to your Freind that may affright him.

Speak not when you Should hold your Peace

do not Presently play the Physician if you be not Knowing therein.

Undertake not what you cannot Perform but be Carefull to keep your Promise.

Trump: “I will give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years. I’m the only one” (campaign rally, North Dakota).

Time for a War on Presidents’ Day

It’s nice to combine a long weekend with a chance to pick up some bargain kitchenware; but outside of that, what’s the point of Presidents’ Day? Modern presidents are ubiquitous and inescapable: hectoring us from above every treadmill at the gym and meddling in every area of American life, from where we get our groceries to which bathroom we’re allowed to use. It’s not as if we’ll forget they exist without setting aside a special day to salute them. Besides, neither the individual presidents we inflict on ourselves every four to eight years nor the institution itself is worth celebrating.

It’s some consolation, then, that, at the federal level at least, there’s no such thing as “Presidents’ Day.” The official designation for the third Monday in February is “Washington’s Birthday.” That’s been the case since one of our less meddlesome presidents, bewhiskered nonentity Rutherford B. Hayes, signed the holiday into law in 1879. 

Granted, it hasn’t been observed on the first president’s actual birthday, February 22, since the Nixon administration. With the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Congress sacrificed accuracy in order to give Americans the benefit of three-day weekends, stipulating that “Washington’s Birthday” would be observed on February’s third Monday.

Still, every so often, some civic-minded busybody insists that it’s presidents—or worse, the presidency in general—that we should be commemorating. In the late ‘90s, for example, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a bill (cosponsored by Ted Kennedy and Tom Daschle) to redesignate “the legal public holiday of Washington’s Birthday as Presidents’ Day … in recognition of the importance of the institution of the Presidency and the contributions that Presidents have made to our nation’s development and the principles of freedom and democracy.”

Bah, humbug. Our presidents—especially the “great” ones—have more often trampled those principles than upheld them. When scholars rank the presidents, their “Top 10” lists typically include a Murderers’ Row of chief executives whose “contributions” to freedom and democracy include Japanese internment, Indian removal, unconstitutional wars, illegal spying, and the imprisonment of peaceful dissenters.

And while there’s no denying “the importance of the institution,” what freedom and self-government we still enjoy persists in spite, not because of, our presidential system. In a pioneering 1990 article, “The Perils of Presidentialism,” the political scientist Juan Linz argued that presidential systems—those that feature a powerful executive, directly elected by the people and serving for a fixed term—are prone to catastrophic breakdowns and degeneration into autocratic rule. By combining the roles of head of state and head of government in one figure, such systems encourage presidents to imagine themselves the living embodiment of the popular will. The president “becomes the focus for whatever exaggerated expectations his supporters may harbor,” Linz writes, and in turn may “conflate his supporters with ‘the people’ as a whole.”

Worse still, the rigidity of presidential terms makes it far harder to throw the bums out if they go rogue. Prime ministers serve at the pleasure of parliament and can even be replaced by their own party. But in all of U.S. constitutional history, we’ve never successfully used the impeachment process to remove a president (Nixon quit). Unless he’s catatonic or certifiable, we’re stuck with him for the duration. 

“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!

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!

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.