Archives for May, 2008
… or at least that you think my book is okay. Join the Facebook fan club for Cult of the Presidency.
I resisted social networking sites for a long time. Part of me still wants to, because grown men shouldn’t be “throwing sheep” at each other or doing anything that involves the verb “twitter,” and because even the sign-up page for Facebook is irksome, using “utility” as a noun. But resistance is useless. You will be assimilated.
How did I miss this quote while researching the book? It’s perfect. Remarks to the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis, Maryland – Pres. Bill Clinton speech – Transcript Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Feb 17, 1997:
And it’s hard when you’re not threatened by a foreign enemy to whip people up to a fever pitch of common, intense, sustained, disciplined endeavor. But that is what we must do, my fellow Americans. That is what we must do.
It probably doesn’t detract from Obama’s coolness quotient that his personal assistant is actually named “Reggie Love.” But the NYT feature story on Mr. Love makes you appreciate the absurdity of the American demand that the president has to understand ordinary people’s problems. Remember the flap in the 1992 campaign when it became clear that H.W. had never seen a supermarket scanner before, and didn’t know what household staples cost? If Obama or McCain or Hillary know what a gallon of gas or a gallon of milk costs, it’s because some savvy aide put it in a briefing book for them. How many people do you know, after all, who have a “body man”? No double entendres please.
When Mr. Obama makes calls to woo superdelegates, Mr. Love is at his side with a briefing book, dialing the numbers. When an outdoor speech ended on a windy day in Noblesville, Ind., he appeared behind Mr. Obama as he shook hands on the rope line. “Jacket?” he asked, a coat draped at the ready over his arm.
When Mr. Obama dropped food on his tie while eating in the car between stops, Mr. Love was ready with a Tide pen. He always carries one, along with ballpoint pens, and has turned himself into a walking dispensary of Sharpies, stationery, protein bars, throat lozenges, water, tea, Advil, Tylenol, Purell and emergency Nicorette, not to mention his ever-present iPhone, BlackBerry and Canon Rebel XT digital camera.
The royal treatment starts even before the coronation. I imagine this sort of thing is unavoidable. If you’re crazy enough to spend years constantly gladhanding your way around the campaign trail, mouthing platitudes and shielding your real opinions like nuclear secrets, you can hardly be expected to carry your own Tide pen. But I also imagine that after about six weeks of it, I’d begin to demand Van Halen-style concert riders and believe that nothing less was my due. And upon taking office, it only gets worse.
As I write in the book (buy it, damn you):
When a fellow is constantly surrounded by fawning assistants hanging on his every word—when his golden chariot is a modified 747—it might be hard for him to maintain the sense of perspective the Romans sought to instill in their military heroes.
We mortals—most of us, anyway—don’t need a designated ego-deflater to remind us of our unimportance. From the deli counter to the office, we’re confronted on a daily basis with people who don’t think we’re anything special and don’t particularly care what we think. The social environment in which the president operates is radically different, and it’s easy to appreciate how that environment might distort his judgment.
Perhaps only the fabulously wealthy and the fabulously famous live in a milieu as unnatural as does the modern president. Like the president, rock stars, movie stars, famous athletes, and corporate “Masters of the Universe” spend their lives immersed in adulation and surrounded by the trappings of wealth and power. And in 21st-century America, people who have it all should surely have their own syndrome. Thanks to Dr. Robert B. Millman, professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical School, now they do: it’s called Acquired Situational Narcissism.
…. Standard psychology teaches that classical narcissism, with its symptoms of self-absorption, delusions of grandeur, and lack of empathy for others, originates in childhood. But as Dr. Millman sees it, “given the right situation, it [can] happen much later.” It can happen, he says, when a person rises to fame, wealth, and power—and spends an extended period of time in atmosphere of artificial deference:
“When a billionaire or a celebrity walks into a room, everyone looks at him. He’s a prince. He has the power to change your life, and everyone is very conscious of that. So they’re drawn to this person. What happens is he gets so used to everyone looking at him that he stops looking back at them.”
Which is understandable, says the doctor: “why would they feel normal when every person in the world who deals with them treats them as if they’re not?”
Think what you will of our therapeutic culture, but whatever the scientific merit of the syndromes it ceaselessly generates, it’s easy enough to imagine one’s own character getting distorted by the conditions Dr. Millman describes. And there is evidence from experimental psychology that dominance warps judgment. In a series of experiments in 2006, scholars from Northwestern, NYU, and Stanford found that “power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how others see the world, how others think about the world, and how others feel about the world.”
Whatever social power celebrities have over those that surround them—and it’s considerable—the environment in which the president exists is even more unnatural. Rock stars and movie idols can order their functionaries around and buy their own planes, but they can’t send the Seventh Fleet through the Taiwan Strait or bomb Syria. And the stakes are much smaller where Russell Crowe, Lindsay Lohan, or Tom Cruise is concerned. If fame and wealth go to a celebrity’s head, he ends up jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch, no harm done to the wider world. If the president loses his grip on things, there’s rather more at stake…
I’m reminded of a charming story about Jerry Ford, our sanest recent president, and (not coincidentally) our most accidental one.
One day Ford’s dog, Liberty, made a mess on the rug in the Oval Office. A Navy steward rushed to clean it up. “I’ll do that,” Ford said. “No man should have to clean up after another man’s dog.”
Then again, it says something that Ford seemed like a great, down-to-earth guy because he didn’t expect other people to pick up after his dog.
From this week’s Newsweek:
[R]hetorical—and related—excesses are inherent in the modern presidency. This is so for reasons brilliantly explored in the year’s most pertinent and sobering public affairs book, “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power,” by Gene Healy of Washington’s libertarian Cato Institute.
Radley has a great write-up of Cult of the Presidency over at Fox News.
In 1819, William Hazlitt, the great radical essayist, snarled that “Man is a toad-eating animal. The admiration of power in others is as common to man as the love of it in himself: the one makes him a tyrant, the other a slave.”
If you’re in the mood for some Hazlitt-style misanthropy, today’s Times has a fairly horrifying article about what campaign 2008 looks like, as seen from the rope line.
While campaign events are largely stage-crafted, the frenzied flesh-pressing that candidates engage in afterward offers something more raw and unpredictable. You see and hear things on rope lines. Get a whiff of things, too. (“I got to smell him, and it was awesome,” raved Kate Homrich, caught between Mr. Obama and a woman trying to hug him in Grand Rapids.)….
A lot can happen on a rope line, which make them both unnerving and unpredictable, and something of a culture unto themselves. Look at the faces — not of the candidates, but of the rope-liners themselves, with arms and fingers extended, their eyes bugged and sometimes tearful.
“Best experience of my life,” said Bonnie Owens, who got her fingers pinched by Mr. Obama after a rally in Louisville last week.
“I couldn’t believe she picked me out of a crowd,” said Jeff Justice after a rope-line encounter with Mrs. Clinton after a rally in Charleston, W.Va. Mrs. Clinton probably picked him out because he fainted in front of her. He was back on his feet after she gave him a bottle of water and, more important, she signed a photograph for him.
This sort of thing is embarrassing enough when it involves sweatsuit-clad Americans waiting outside the NBC studios, praying for a glimpse of Matt Lauer. When it involves people who aspire to power, it’s far, far worse.
In his essay “On the Spirit of Monarchy,” Hazlitt noted that, as savages, we fashioned “Gods of wood and stone and brass,” but now, thinking ourselves above superstition, “we make kings of common men, and are proud of our own handiwork.” As Hazlitt saw it, behind that impulse lies a craven desire to dominate others, even if only vicariously: “each individual would (were it in his power) be a king, a God: but as he cannot, the next best thing is to see this reflex image of his self-love, the darling passion of his breast, realized, embodied out of himself in the first object he can lay his hands on for the purpose.”
But Hazlitt wasn’t immune from the original sin he criticized. As if illustrating his own warnings about man’s tendency toward hero-worship, Hazlitt penned a hagiographic “Life of Napoleon Buonaparte” that took “a sentimental view of Caesarism.” None of us are immune. Liberty requires upon rising above the weakness of the Flesh, resisting our temptation to worship Power, fighting it with a political culture that contains healthy doses of scorn and irreverence.
“Bonnie Owens,” “Jeff Justice,” and the like would no doubt resent that perspective, but as Hazlitt wrote in one of his better moments:
“Would it not be hard upon a little girl, who is busy in dressing up a favorite doll, to pull it in pieces before her face in order to show her the bits of wood, the wool, and rags it is composed of? So it would be hard upon that great baby, the world, to take any of its idols to pieces, and show that they are nothing but painted wood. Neither of them would thank you, but consider the offer as in insult.”
Nobody likes a cynic. But civilization depends on cynicism.
David Brooks’s latest, a disquisition on the difference between ‘geeks’ and ‘nerds,’ is cringe-inducing throughout, the sort of chatty exercise in pointless faux-hipness that makes you long for the cool logic of Maureen Dowd and the mellifluous metaphors of Thomas Friedman, but it was the following sentence that nearly made me swear off reading entirely:
Barack Obama has become the Prince Caspian of the iPhone hordes.
I write a little bit about Kirk in the section of the book labeled “How Conservatives Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imperial Presidency.” Kirk, to his credit, was never really able to stop worrying. Search his name on the Heritage Foundation website and you’ll find some stuff that would get Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh to cry treason. Here’s Kirk in the wake of Gulf War I:
it would be ruinous for the Republicans to convert themselves into a party of high deeds in distant lands and higher taxes on the home front. Such a New World Order, like the Pax Romana, might create a wilderness and call it peace; at best, it would reduce the chocolate ration from thirty grams to twenty. And in the fullness of time, the angry peoples of the world would pull down the American Empire, despite its military ingenuity and its protestations of kindness and gentleness — even as the Soviet Empire is being pulled down today, thanks be to God.
I like this one, too (and quote it in the book):
The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. in every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage. It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good–so long as the power falls into his hands. In the name of liberty, the French and Russian revolutionaries abolished the old restraints upon power; but power cannot be abolished; it always finds its way into someone’s hands. That power which the revolutionaries had thought oppressive in the hands of the old regime became many times as tyrannical in the hands of the radical new masters of the state.
Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web-of restraints upon will and appetite–these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order.
Man, remember conservatives? They used to believe stuff like that. Some of them still do, but they’re few and far between. Today Heritage’s Russell Kirk lecture goes to the likes of John Yoo. Seriously.
It pains me to admit it, but John McCain has a good idea here:
I will ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the Prime Minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons.
Bruce Buchanan proposed this in his intriguing but now out of print book The Presidential Experience: What the Office Does to the Man. If it could be enshrined as a regular custom–something presidents are expected to do, like releasing their tax returns–it might help bring the office down to earth, and prevent the president from isolating himself from alternative viewpoints. But the new custom would only be worth having if it was conducted in the rude spirit the British bring to it. I remember as a kid being struck by the image of Margaret Thatcher getting berated some backbencher in a gangrene-colored tie (and matching teeth), who’d say “right honorable gentlelady” (or whatever) in a tone that reeked of contempt. Though she gave as good as she got, the entire process repudiated the idea that she floated on a higher plane than her colleagues.
Plus, with McCain in the dock, you might get the bonus of a Captain Queeg moment.
I have an anarchist friend who has referred to the Constitution as “the Clinton Health Care plan of 1787, except it passed.” I was reminded of that quip recently while rereading large parts of the Federalist for a Liberty Fund seminar. Every so often you come across statements that ring somewhere between funny and tragic given how things have worked out. Federalist No. 45 has a couple of good ones:
On federal tax collectors:
If the federal government is to have collectors of revenue, the State governments will have theirs also. And… those of the former will be principally on the seacoast, and not very numerous…
On the commerce power:
The regulation of commerce, it is true, is a new power; but that seems to be an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained.
But my favorite is one I use in the book. From Hamilton in Federalist No. 68, describing the presidential selection system (which to be fair, we haven’t stuck to):
The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.
“It’s not for me to second-guess the president of the United States.”
–Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, “reject[ing] the notion of a dramatic break with Bush.”
Scroll to the end of the audio of this Federalist Society debate on “Executive Discretion & the Rule of Law” for the following gem from the unsatirizable Harvey Mansfield:
Q: is the type of [presidential] greatness you’re talking about consistent with separation of powers [and is it] necessarily good for individuals?
A: ….Is it always good for the individual? No, if by good for the individual you mean make him more wealthy or more secure, but… what… what is good for your soul? what is good for your soul is something that enlarges it and makes it respect itself more and it gives you something to be proud of–and that’s what a great president does in our country. Our greatness is wrapped up in our great presidents.
Huh. And here I thought the ostensible purpose of the national government was to make the individual more prosperous and secure. And I thought that tasks like enlarging the soul and making it, er, respect itself more, were beyond the purview of the federal government’s chief magistrate, who was to have “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction.”
Shows how much I know. I mean, until HM published Manliness a few years back, I was inclined to doubt that you could learn much on the subject from some twee, tweed-jacketed fellow whose own bio brags that “he has hardly left Harvard since his first arrival in 1949.”
My synopsis of the book in the June Reason is now online. Remember, the Insurrection Act changes I complain about toward the end of the article are no longer in effect, but in virtually every other way, things are just as bad as they were before and we’re just as doomed. Yes we can? No we can’t. We are the problem we’ve been suffering from.
My God, the Kindle is great. And I say this even though the first one I got broke after about three hours (screen locked up and wouldn’t reset). My replacement arrived yesterday. This morning, it was like Jeeves had brought me the New York Times–it was right there when I woke up and all I had to do was reach for it.
In the new Atlantic (not online yet), Ross Douthat makes the case that history–or historians, at any rate–may end up being a lot kinder to President Bush than he deserves. Douthat writes that judging by the periodic presidential rankings issued by presidential scholars:
Americans tend to forgive their leaders for the crimes and errors of the moment…. we’ve forgiven Teddy Roosevelt his role in the bloody and disgraceful occupation of the Phillipines. It’s why we’ve pardoned Woodrow Wilson for the part his feckless idealism played in unleashing decades of strife and tyranny in Europe. It’s why we’ve granted Harry Truman absolution for the military blundering that prolonged the Korean War and brought us to the brink of nuclear conflict…. These well-respected presidents have benefited as well, from the American tendency to overvalue activist leaders. So a bad president like Wilson is preferred, in our rankings and our hearts, to a good but undistinguished manager like Calvin Coolidge…
Douthat’s absolutely right that the presidential rankings reflect a bias toward activism, a preference for those presidents who dream big and dare great things, even when they leave wreckage in their wake. As I point out in The Cult of the Presidency:
Social psychologist Dean Keith Simonton used regression analysis to examine the factors that the rankers reward, demonstrating that, besides years in office, years at war are most strongly correlated with higher standing. Another scholar who, like Simonton, ran the numbers on presidential greatness, concluded that “Without the compelling urgency of war… a great individual will have considerable difficulty in gaining recognition as a great president.” In 2005, conservative law professor Eric Posner suggested that the academic consensus proved that “imperial presidents perform better than limited-power republican presidents.” Posner looked at the 2000 presidential poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society (the first to control for the rankers’ political affiliation) and categorized each of the presidents ranked in the poll as either “republican” or “imperial.” The high status of the imperialists led Posner to conclude that there was a powerful argument for unleashing the Imperial Presidency: “much of the structure of the presidency—especially in foreign affairs—is hampered by 18th-century restrictions that were motivated by fears of monarchy. By pushing against these restrictions, Bush… is further modernizing the office of the presidency and preparing it for the challenges ahead.”….
In the perverse calculus that governs the presidential rankings, a man’s worth is measured not by how much harm he avoided, not by how well he presided over domestic peace, but by how skillfully he exploited catastrophes to spur revolutionary change. Is it any wonder, then, that presidents, who walk the halls with the portraits of past greats, sometimes long for an enormous crisis in which to prove themselves? Should we be surprised if they’re tempted to resort to militarism when the impossible tasks they’ve signed up for—“managing” the economy, keeping Americans safe from every sort of harm—up to and including spiritual “malaise”—prove difficult to fulfill? If presidents are too quick to invoke the war metaphor, if they find themselves drawn toward sweeping theories of executive power and an exalted, quasi-religious view of their station, then perhaps that’s because the people who fill out their report cards reward such behavior.
Buy the book, already.