Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hail Caesar ... err ... the President

Whether you call it Washington's Birthday (the official federal holiday) or Presidents Day (the common name and a holiday recognized in many states), the third Monday in February is set aside to honor the person in whom the executive power of the United States federal government is vested. That's reason enough to be leery of the day, offset just a bit by the happy fact that many Americans are spared a day of school or work as part of the celebration (not to mention the sales!). I say "leery" not just because of the particular individual who holds the office -- however disappointing the guy may be, he's hardly the worst of the bunch -- but because the office itself is so suspect, bloated with more power and expectation than any individual can handle, and any free society can survive.

Jimmy Breslin might have put it best when he said, "The office of president is a bastardized thing, half royalty and half democracy, that nobody knows whether to genuflect or spit."

Half of us might be willing to spit at any given moment, but usually only when the other side's guy has power. The rest of the time, we're busy genuflecting and larding the presidency with vast power to ... well ... wage wars unilaterally, hold enemy combatants terrorism suspects without trial or charges -- and subject them to torture, seize control of private companies, engage in domestic espionage...

And, while he's doing all this, the president is also supposed to act as an example for our children, spokesman to the world, spiritual leader and national recruiter for international sporting events.
As Gene Healy, author of The Cult of the Presidency, put it:
The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He--or she--is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America’s shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He’s also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.
This is insanity, of course. Only a thoroughgoing egomaniac could even want such an impossible job. Which may be why we get the presidents we've been getting.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Constitution mentions the presidency only after describing the powers and structure of Congress. While urging the adoption of that document, James Madison assured Americans in Federalist Number 48, " the executive magistracy is carefully limited; both in the extent and the duration of its power." Presidents before Woodrow Wilson didn't even dare deliver the State of the Union address to Congress in person, fearing that was a bit too monarchical.

The presidency didn't assume its current, monstrous, proportions through a coup. It gained greater power and prestige, slowly at first, and then rapidly through the twentieth century. Frankly, many Americans seem to like it that way, preferring a king to a president when all is said and done.

Maybe, deep down, most humans like doffing their caps and quaking in the presence of a mighty chieftain. Hiring and firing temporary administrators just isn't sufficiently majestic.

So enjoy your Presidents Day/Washington's Birthday. Just don't get carried away with the celebration.



Anonymous The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit said...

"Maybe, deep down, most humans like doffing their caps and quaking in the presence of a mighty chieftain."

Sad, that, but I've been of the same opinion for a long time now. The majority just seem to have a "hierarchy gene" and a built in grovel gland....

February 16, 2010 11:56 AM  

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