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Imperial Presidencies Hurt the Presidents Themselves

Updated on January 2, 2012

Whether or not a person possesses religious faith, she can pretty well discern the fallibility of human beings. The wisest of us sometimes misjudge, the strongest crack when enough pressure is applied, the most generous are caught in instances of pettiness. This is not to say that as a race we are hopeless. It is more a call to reasonableness and moderation in our expectations of others. A double portion of such sobriety should accompany the evaluation of political leaders.

By contrast, presidential election years are incubators for political intoxication. Candidates are sold – in fact, sell themselves – as embodiments of all virtue and competence. On issues they learn to push all the right buttons, ignoring or rationalizing past stances to the contrary. Spending millions upon millions, they re-invent themselves to the liking of focus groups, accentuating the noble traits and covering the blemishes.

Can we blame the candidates and their operatives for this staging? Certainly, we can. Yet we must shoulder some of the responsibility, as Cato Institute scholar Gene Healy has written in "The Cult of the Presidency":

Neither left nor Right sees the president as the Framers saw him: a constitutionally constrained chief executive with an important, but limited job: to defend the country when attacked, to check Congress when it violates the Constitution, enforce the law – and little else. Today, for conservatives as well as liberals, it is the president’s job to protect us from harm, to “grow the economy”, to spread democracy and American ideals abroad, and even to heal spiritual malaise – whether it takes the form of a “sleeping sickness of the soul,” as Hillary Clinton would have it, or an “if it feels good, do it” ethic, as diagnosed by George W. Bush.

Who over-promised and who over-believed is a chicken-or-the-egg argument destined for irresolution. We have all been complicit in this destructive cycle. As our government proves increasingly inadequate to meet the requirements of its super-sized portfolio, the citizenry is left disappointed and in want of more powerful rulers. These politicians, in turn, seek more discretionary power if they are to accomplish their myriad commitments. It becomes a full-time job for these men and women just to affect the image of worthiness when new functions are conferred.

L. Frank Baum has told the story of a seemingly ordinary carnival huckster who descended upon a strange land after his balloon was blown off course. What was an accident for him was a divine sign for the needy people he encountered there, who proclaimed him Oz, the First Wizard Deluxe. Knowing his own limitations – and that his spectacular advent would soon grow stale in the collective memory – Oz used his innate cleverness to maintain a comfortable distance between himself and his subjects. Should they ever get too close, he created a smoke-and-mirrors spectacle for a shock and awe effect. The over-arching purpose was to keep people from seeing his contemptible ordinariness – “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!!”

Are we so far removed from that tale of fantasy? How many politicians admit to ignorance? To parental incompetence? To insincerity? To self-absorption? Most people fall prey to one of these failings from time to time. Rather than demanding superior politicians, we might tend to our own improvement. Does this mean we should accept mediocrity in our leaders? Far from it. My suspicion is that if we scale back the presidency to its original scope, as Healy advises, wiser and more discerning people will come to the fore to claim it. While presidents get a good deal of criticism, their adorers and supporters often drown out needed correction with exhaltation and worship. Truly intelligent politicians know the toxic nature of this glorification.

Celebrities ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Elvis Presley to Michael Jackson are examples of people-worship gone awry. While the coroner reports listed various drugs as related to cause and manner of death, each of these performers was killed by his or her worshippers. Of course, human beings are not designed to be worshipped, so that statement should surprise nobody. Worshippers look for affirmation that humans can not bestow, for spiritual food that is unavailable from flesh-and-blood people in and of themselves. Instead of trying to feed the beast, as it were, candidates (and incumbents) best slay it as a service to their country.

The New York Times recently ran an article on how President Obama has become more socially aloof. I suspect this is a defense mechanism – to repel not enemies but purported friends. Perhaps he has an innate sense of the danger of presidential exaltation. I would advise him to go with that instinct with this caveat: that the expansive presidency he covets enables the very beast that threatens to devour him.


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