Archives for the 'Cult of the Presidency' Category

Cult at the Movies

Caleb Brown and Jorge Artega have put together a terrific little video segment on changing views of the president’s role, using an interview with me and clips from the 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House, a Hearst-funded, FDR propaganda vehicle in which the president is literally touched by an angel and imbued with the Holy Spirit of Presidential Activism. (I’m glad Caleb included the clip where the president pledges to suspend mortgage foreclosures).

Update: and it turns out that Gabriel is on Turner Classic Movies on 11/25. Set your Tivo.

Posted on Oct 12, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Cult of the Presidency | 14 Comments

Race and the Presidency

Matt Yglesias had an interesting post the other day, making an argument that I’ve been thinking about for a while, but haven’t yet written up. Matt speculates that an Obama victory might, contrary to the conventional wisdom, lead to a more racially charged (and thus even more unpleasant) politics. I agree, if for slightly different reasons than he offers.

Because we invest impossible expectations in the office of the presidency, the presidency has become an impossible job. And once the honeymoon period inevitably fades, the modern president becomes a lightning rod for discontent, often catching blame for phenomena beyond the control of any one person, however powerful. As Thomas Cronin put it in his classic 1970 essay “Superman: Our Textbook President”:

on both sides of the presidential popularity equation [the president’s] importance is inflated beyond reasonable bounds. On one side, there is a nearly blind faith that the president embodies national virtue and that any detractor must be an effete snob or a nervous Nellie. On the other side, the president becomes the cause of all personal maladies, the originator of poverty and racism, inventor of the establishment, and the party responsible for a choleric national disposition.

Obama has done more than any presidential candidate in a generation to increase expectations for the office, expectations that were insanely high to begin with. If he’s elected, when he fails to bind up the nation’s wounds, fix health care, teach our children well, provide balm for our itchy souls, etc. etc., his hope-addled rhetoric will seem all the more grating, and the public will increasingly come to see him as the source of all American woes. As his popularity dwindles, many of Obama’s defenders will view attacks on him through the prism of race, forgetting or ignoring the fact that nearly every president eventually morphs from superhero to scapegoat in the public mind. Since some of the attacks on Obama will, unfortunately, be racially charged, his supporters will always be able to find reasons to cry racism, and try to discredit the conservative critique of Obama’s presidency. Conservatives will resent being lumped in with bigots and hit back harder, and on and on it will go. Race will take on undue relevance because the presidency is far more powerful and far more important than it ought to be. Until that changes, we shouldn’t expect any president, however well-intentioned, to be “a uniter, not a divider” in American life.

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Posted on Oct 9, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Liberalism | 6 Comments

“Ponytail Guy” and the Presidency

Ah, the town-hall debate format: that wonderful Oprah-style arrangement in which a hand-picked audience of allegedly normal Americans gets to lob questions at the candidates, who perch awkwardly on directors’ chairs, trying to look warm and approachable. What could be phonier?

Well, maybe a town-hall debate with rules like the ones in force tonight (hat tip Matt Yglesias):

–The questions will be culled from a group of 100 to 150 uncommitted likely voters in the audience and another one-third to come via the Internet. Brokaw selects which questions to ask from written queries submitted prior to the debate.

–The Gallup Organization makes sure the questioners reflect the demographic makeup of the nation.

–An audience member isn’t allowed to switch questions and will not be allowed a follow-up either. His or her microphone will be turned off after the question is read and a camera shot will only be shown of the person asking — not reacting.

–The moderator may not ask followups or make comments.

–McCain and Obama will be provided with director’s chairs, but they’re also allowed to stand. They can’t roam past their “designated area” marked on the stage and are not supposed to ask each other direct questions.

Even so, these things occasionally give rise to memorable moments. My favorite, in terms of revealing how far we’ve drifted from the Framers’ modest, limited conception of the president’s role, was the “ponytail guy” incident from a 1992 town-hall-style debate. This chopped-up YouTube clip will give you a little sense of what that was like.

But to really do it justice, you’ll need the transcript (or, better yet, the book):

The demand for presidential salvation hit its rhetorical nadir in the 1992 presidential debates, when a ponytailed social worker named Denton Walthall rose to ask Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, and President Bush the following question:

“The focus of my work as a domestic mediator is meeting the needs of the children that I work with, by way of their parents, and not the wants of their parents. And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the two of you, the three of you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it….”

“You name it,” indeed. Walthall followed up by asking,

“Could we cross our hearts; it sounds silly here, but could we make a commitment? You know, we’re not under oath at this point, but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the United States to meet our needs, and we have many, and not yours. Again, I have to repeat that, it’s a real need, I think, that we all have.”

Denton Walthall came in for a fair amount of criticism on the op-ed pages and talk radio airwaves. Yet under the hot lights, none of the candidates risked chastising him, however gently, for having an overly capacious view of presidential responsibility. Instead, they accepted his premise. Ross Perot said he’d take Walthall’s pledge, “no hedges, no ifs, ands and buts.” Governor Clinton argued with Perot about who was more authentic and less dependent on “spin doctors,” and noted that as governor, he’d “worked 12 years very hard… on the real problems of real people.” “It depends on how you define it,” President George H.W. Bush stammered his reply to Walthall,

“… I mean I — I think, in general, let’s talk about these — let’s talk about these issues; let’s talk about the programs, but in the Presidency a lot goes into it. Caring is — goes into it; that’s not particularly specific; strength goes into it, that’s not specific; standing up against aggression, that’s not specific in terms of a program. So I, in principle, I’ll take your point and think we ought to discuss child care, or whatever else it is.”

It’s hard to blame H.W.’s stammering on the Bush family’s notorious difficulty with words. Sad as it is to contemplate, the Bush-Walthall colloquy accurately described what by then had long been the dominant conception of the president’s role in modern American life. That role contains multitudes.

It’s “not specific.” It’s “strength” “caring” “housing” “crime” “standing up against aggression,” “child care—or, indeed, “whatever else it is.” It’s a conception that’s fundamentally incompatible with limited, constitutional government.

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Posted on Oct 7, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency, Executive Power, Human Nature | 5 Comments

Cult of the Vice Presidency

Look ma, I’m in the New York Times, with a question for the aspiring veeps:

The claim by Dick Cheney that he was exempt from certain disclosure requirements because the vice president was a “legislative officer” has been greeted with outrage. But the main power the Constitution grants the vice president is a legislative one — breaking a tie vote in the Senate.

So, Governor Palin, Senator Biden, doesn’t Mr. Cheney have a point?

But, then, if the vice president is a legislative officer, how can he wield the vast executive powers that Mr. Cheney has exercised, including orchestrating and supervising a warrantless wiretapping program?

Can the vice president shift between branches at his convenience? If not, what, in your view, is the constitutional status of the vice presidency?

— GENE HEALY, the author of “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power”

Giving credit where it’s due, I should mention this smart, short law review article by Glenn Reynolds, “Is Dick Cheney Unconstitutional?”

Friend and Blogfather Radley Balko has a good one for Joe Biden:

Senator Biden, you’ve been one of the Senate’s most ardent drug warriors. You helped create the office of “drug czar”; backed our failed eradication efforts in South America; encouraged the government to seize the assets of people merely suspected of drug crimes; pushed for the expanded use of racketeering and conspiracy laws against drug offenders; advocated the use of the military to fight the drug war; and sponsored a bill that holds venue owners and promoters criminally liable for drug use by people attending concerts and events.

Today, illicit drugs are as cheap and abundant as they were decades ago. Would you agree that the anti-drug policies you’ve championed have failed? If not, how have they succeeded?

— RADLEY BALKO, a senior editor at Reason magazine

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Posted on Oct 2, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency, Domestic Policy, Executive Power | 5 Comments

Fuzzy Math and Verbage

How smart should a president be? William F. Buckley famously said he’d “rather be ruled by the first 500 people in the Boston phonebook than the faculty at Harvard University,” and there’s surely something to that, though the worst president in American history was a Princeton man.

Here’s an interesting graph comparing presidential success with presidential IQ. (Explanation here) (Hat tip: Marian Tupy).

It’s a fun conversation piece, but it doesn’t tell you much. First of all, all the conventional rankings dramatically downgrade “do-nothing” presidents, so the version of presidential greatness used is always going to overvalue drama, explosions, and ambitious plans to remake the country and the world. Note that here, once again, Warren G. Harding is the Rodney Dangerfield of presidents, ranked dead last despite his admirable record on separation of powers, size of government, and civil liberties.

Moreover, the IQ data is highly dubious, especially the farther back you go in history, where it appears to be based on presidential biographies and personal papers, rather than standardized tests from college or military service. When I first looked at the graph, I wondered how they’d concluded that JFK, who was basically the Irish mob version of A.J. Soprano, was smarter than John Adams and James Madison. It turns out, according to JFK biographer Thomas Reeves, that “Kennedy was actually given an IQ test before entering Choate. His score was 119,” much lower than what he’s assessed at here.

In any event, given the difficulties of assessing IQ from a distance of generations, and the contentious nature of presidential greatness, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about the relationship between intelligence and presidential “success.”

However, too many conservatives, it seems to me, are too quick to conclude that brains don’t matter much when we’re choosing a constitutional chief executive. The reasoning seems to be: Jimmy Carter was smart, and he was a bad president; Reagan went to Eureka College and the intelligentsia sneered at him, yet he was a good president. Therefore, we should count ourselves lucky if and when we get George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. This sells Reagan short (and Carter too?): Reagan wasn’t an intellectual, but he was interested in ideas, and anyone who’s tried to write opeds and has seen Reagan’s handwritten 1970s radio speeches, for example, knows that he was a sharp guy and a smart writer. His success certainly doesn’t mean that unremarkable intelligence and lack of intellectual curiousity are virtues when it comes to the office of the presidency.

But some come close to concluding that they are virtues. See, for example, Charles Murray in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine:

What do you think of Sarah Palin? I’m in love. Truly and deeply in love.

Why is the McCain clan so eager to advertise its anti-intellectualism? The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government. Probably the smartest president we’ve had in terms of I.Q. in the last 50 years was Jimmy Carter, and I think he is the worst president of the last 50 years.

Yes, some presidents can be too smart for their own good (though I seriously doubt that was Carter’s problem). But that doesn’t mean that when selecting potential presidents we ought to seek out people who aren’t particularly bright. God, I never thought I’d say this, but maybe Charles Murray isn’t enough of an intellectual elitist.

Posted on Sep 23, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Libertarianism | 13 Comments

Me, Me, Me, Me

Here I am from a conference at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover from back in May. I uhhh gotta work on my uhhhs, but otherwise I think it comes across ok.

I’m answering questions over at LibraryThing, which, I recently learned, is run by an old friend from college.

And Matt Yglesias gave the book a nice shout-out last week. Thanks, Matt!

Posted on Sep 23, 2008 in Asides, Cult of the Presidency | 6 Comments

Abuse of Power, Big Time

This week, the Washington Post ran two excerpts from Barton Gellman’s new book Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, which describes the fight over warrantless wiretapping in greater detail than we’ve had before. We still don’t know the precise reach of the original (pre-2004) program, nor do we have the classified legal analysis prepared by John Yoo. But Gellman’s account makes you wonder just how far the program and the legal theory went, given that it horrified men like Attorney General John Ashcroft, Deputy A.G. James Comey, and Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith–all staunch conservatives who were perfectly comfortable with ambitious theories of executive power, all of whom (along with FBI Director Robert Mueller and sundry other top Justice officials) were ready to resign over the original warrantless wiretapping program. (Marty Lederman made a similar point last year, when Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee).

Ashcroft’s record on civil liberties and executive power is fairly well known. And keep in mind who Goldsmith and Comey are. Goldsmith says plainly that he’s “not a civil libertarian,” and he got the OLC job on John Yoo’s recommendation. And as a US Attorney in New York, James Comey was quite comfortable with pushing the law to its limits and beyond. He prosecuted Martha Stewart for misleading federal investigators about behavior that wasn’t a crime, and he even seriously considered pursuing mail and wire fraud charges against disgraced reporter Jayson Blair for the hitherto unknown crime of making stuff up in the New York Times (Bill Kristol, beware). But the original program was a bridge too far even for them.

Gellman describes a “come to Jesus” meeting orchestrated by David Addington, Alberto Gonzales and Dick Cheney, to get the Justice Department to reauthorize the surveillance program:

Comey, Goldsmith and Philbin found the titans of the intelligence establishment lined up, a bunch of grave-faced analysts behind them for added mass. The spy chiefs brought no lawyers. The law was not the point. This meeting, described by officials with access to two sets of contemporaneous notes, was about telling Justice to set its qualms aside.

The staging had been arranged for maximum impact. Cheney sat at the head of Card’s rectangular table, pivoting left to face the acting attorney general. The two men were close enough to touch. Card sat grimly at Cheney’s right, directly across from Comey. There was plenty of eye contact all around.

This program, Cheney said, was vital. Turning it off would leave us blind. Hayden, the NSA chief, pitched in: Even if the program had yet to produce blockbuster results, it was the only real hope of discovering sleeper agents before they could act.

“How can you possibly be reversing course on something of this importance after all this time?” Cheney asked.

“I will accept for purposes of discussion that it is as valuable as you say it is,” Comey said. “That only makes this more painful. It doesn’t change the analysis. If I can’t find a lawful basis for something, your telling me you really, really need to do it doesn’t help me.”

“Others see it differently,” Cheney said.

There was only one of those, really. John Yoo had been out of the picture for nearly a year. It was all Addington.

“The analysis is flawed, in fact facially flawed,” Comey said. “No lawyer reading that could reasonably rely on it.”

Gonzales said nothing. Addington stood by the window, over Cheney’s shoulder. He had heard a bellyful.

“Well, I’m a lawyer and I did,” Addington said, glaring at Comey.

“No good lawyer,” Comey said.

Bonus Angler revelation: Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey suggests that Cheney lied to him to keep Armey from going all wobbly on the Iraq War vote:

The threat Cheney described went far beyond public statements that have been criticized for relying on “cherry-picked” intelligence of unknown reliability. There was no intelligence to support the vice president’s private assertions, Gellman reports.

Armey had spoken out against the coming war, and his opposition gave cover to Democrats who feared the political costs of appearing weak. Armey reversed his position after Cheney told him, he said, that the threat from Iraq was “more imminent than we want to portray to the public at large.”

Cheney said, according to Armey, that Iraq’s “ability to miniaturize weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear,” had been “substantially refined since the first Gulf War.”

Cheney linked that threat to Hussein’s alleged ties to Al Qaeda, Armey said, explaining “we now know they have the ability to develop these weapons in a very portable fashion, and they have a delivery system in their relationship with organizations such as Al Qaeda.”

“Did Dick Cheney . . . purposely tell me things he knew to be untrue?” Armey said. “I seriously feel that may be the case. . . . Had I known or believed then what I believe now, I would have publicly opposed [the war] resolution right to the bitter end.”

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Posted on Sep 17, 2008 in Civil Liberties, Cult of the Presidency, Domestic Policy, Executive Power | 2 Comments

Polling Presidential Power

There’s a new poll out from the Associated Press and the National Constitution Center that shows “Americans strongly oppose giving the president more power at the expense of Congress or the courts, even to enhance national security or the economy.” Which is certainly good news, but it doesn’t mean there’s deep public support for de-imperializing the presidency. As the survey itself shows, only a minority of Americans thinks our current, gargantuan presidency is “too powerful.”

Which is one reason why there’s been very little debate over presidential power in campaign over the last few months (I know, because I’ve been looking fruitlessly for op-ed news hooks). Even after the Bush years, presidential power is not a pressing electoral issue.

Last December, Charlie Savage did the electorate a service by getting all the presidential candidates to go on the record with their views on executive power. (Here are McCain, Obama, and Biden’s answers.) But the voters don’t punish candidates who break these promises like they do presidents who break a “no new taxes” pledge. If the voters did, the candidates would have worried more about flip-flopping on the wiretapping question, but both McCain and Obama felt they could do it with little difficulty.

So sure, around 2/3s of the respondents to the AP/National Constitution Center poll oppose further expansions of executive power. But how people answer broad, abstract questions about governance is one thing; what they actually demand from potential presidents is another thing entirely. If the rhetoric of this presidential campaign is any indication, voters continue to respond to the idea of the president as a combination miracle-worker-cum-national parent.

Barack Obama has, among other things, promised to hold back the oceans’ rise, “end the age of oil in our time,” and “create a Kingdom right here on Earth.”

In his acceptance speech, John McCain professed humility, only moments after a video montage that suggested God rescued him from a carrier-deck fire so he could be president someday. And, judging by Rudy Giuliani’s keynote address, McCain will bridge the Mommy Party/Daddy Party divide, becoming a all-purpose national parent: “And we can trust him to deal with anything, anything that nature throws our way, anything that terrorists do to us…. and we will be safe in his hands, and our children will be safe in his hands.” He’s got the whole world in his hands.

This expansive vision of presidential responsibility is incompatible with limited government. And so long as it prevails, we can’t take much comfort in the fact that Americans tell pollsters they’d like limits on presidential power.

More bad news here.

Posted on Sep 15, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency, Domestic Policy, Executive Power, Foreign Policy and Defense | 1 Comment

Cult Reviewed in National Review

Claremont Institute fellow Michael M. Uhlmann has a dismissive review of The Cult of the Presidency in the current issue of National Review: “It’s Not Just the Executive,” September 15, 2008. (Here it is if you get NR Digital, otherwise it’s available in the print edition). It seems to me that the review largely consists of inaccurate characterizations, unsupported assertions, and non sequiturs. But I’m understandably biased, so check it out and judge for yourself.

Uhlmann writes that “The bulk of Healy’s book is devoted to various sins, offenses and negligences of the Bush administration.” That’s a bizarre statement, given that the book has nine chapters and an introduction, and only three of those chapters cover GWB’s tenure. In fact, the “bulk of the book” is devoted to demonstrating that, as I write in Chapter Two, “the problems of the modern presidency did not begin when George W. Bush emerged victorious from 2000’s seemingly interminable Battle of the Chads” and that–despite what some on the Left seem to believe–those problems will not vanish in January 2009 when he heads back to the ranch to cut brush.

The book is a history of the presidency’s transformation from the important, but constitutionally limited office the Framers designed to an extraconstitutional monstrosity charged with moving the masses and saving the world. But by beginning his review with a discussion of “unhinged” Bush critics, and mischaracterizing the book’s contents, Uhlmann has undoubtedly left NR readers with the impression that The Cult of the Presidency is yet another partisan screed against the current administration. Move along, nothing to see here.

That’s a shame, because conservatives could surely benefit from reexamining their decades-long affinity for strong presidencies. There’s nothing particularly conservative about investing vast unchecked power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top in a modern presidential contest. As Russell Kirk put it, “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.” And if principled reasons aren’t good enough, the fact that Republicans, let alone conservative Republicans, are unlikely to dominate the electoral college in the coming decades ought–like the prospect of a hanging–to concentrate the mind somewhat.

Uhlmann is willing to concede that the Bush administration’s claims of uncheckable authority over the detention and treatment of terrorist suspects “entail arguable legal propositions.” Which is gracious of him. But he provides very little argument for his view that the Framers envisioned a president with anything like the powers the current president–or others before him–have claimed. What arguments he provides often consist of offering innocuous and uncontroversial historical claims about 18th-century Americans’ views of executive power–as if those claims establish that the modern presidency is the constitutional presidency. In each case, he falls a few premises short of a syllogism.

Yes, the Federalist suggests, as Uhlmann notes, that “legislative excess is the danger chiefly to be guarded against in a republic.” But that was so, as Madison explains in No. 48, because the government the Constitution envisioned would be fundamentally different from one in which “numerous and extensive prerogatives are placed in the hands of a hereditary monarch.” Legislative power was more to be feared precisely because under the American Constitution “the executive magistracy is carefully limited, both in the extent and the duration of its power.”

Yes, the Framers sought to avoid some of the mistakes made in some of “the state constitutions adopted between 1776 and 1787″ and to create a relatively vigorous and independent executive. But there’s quite a distance between that fact and the current administration’s claims that Congress cannot restrain the president from ordering torture and that the president has the power to permanently imprison American citizens without charges or legal process. (Uhlmann treats these issues at greater length in an extensive essay on presidential powers in a recent edition of the Claremont Review, in which, it seems to me, the verbiage-to-evidence ratio is also fairly high.)

Then there’s Uhlmann’s painfully obvious argument that “It’s Not Just the Executive” that’s a problem in our modern welfare-warfare state. Well, yes. It’s not clear who Uhlmann’s arguing with when he points out “the size and arbitrariness of government in general” are intertwined with concerns about a powerful presidency, and that the growth of presidential power would not have been possible without the collaboration of Congress and the judiciary. I make the same points repeatedly and at length throughout the book.

But the book focuses on the presidency because the president has become the focal point of Americans’ dangerously unrealistic expectations about what government can deliver, at home and abroad. As the political scientist Theodore Lowi explained (and as I discuss in the book), the post-New Deal state pledged itself to the constant delivery of goods and benefits, with the public looking most of all to the president to meet the key test of the new regime’s legitimacy: “service delivery.” The emerging “Second Republic of the United States” was one in which, as Lowi sums up, “the system of government had become an inverted pyramid, with everything coming to rest on a presidential pinpoint.”

So the presidency is important. It merits special attention, perhaps especially from conservatives, given their longstanding myopia about the dangers of presidential power. For too long the Right has been wedded to the odd proposition that next to the “Imperial Congress” and the “Imperial Judiciary”, the executive branch–the branch with guns–is the least dangerous branch. I’m glad that NR reviewed the book, and I didn’t expect an uncritical embrace of my perspective. But I would have preferred a serious discussion of the issues the book raises.

Posted on Sep 6, 2008 in Civil Liberties, Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Domestic Policy, Executive Power, Foreign Policy and Defense | 9 Comments

Cult Watch

CNBC just ran a feature entitled “Electing the CEO of America.” It’s a great illustration of the insane expectations Americans invest in what’s supposed to be a limited, constitutional office. As I write in that book,

Over the second half of the 20th century, Gallup polls showed that an average of 41 percent of Americans per year cited economic issues as the most important problems facing America. Here, as usual, the buck stopped with the president, Rossiter’s “Manager of Prosperity,” despite the fact that expecting any president to successfully “manage” a 13-trillion dollar economy made up of some 150 million workers, each with their own plans and goals, is unrealistic, to put it mildly.

The only presidential candidate in recent years to echo William Howard Taft’s 1912 admonition that “the national government cannot create good times,” was a fictional one, Republican contender Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda on NBC’s “West Wing.” In November 2005, the network aired a live “debate” between Vinick and his Democratic opponent, Jimmy Smits’ Matt Santos. Asked “how many jobs will you create?” Vinick said “None.” “Entrepreneurs create jobs,” he elaborated, “Business creates jobs. The president’s job is to get out of the way.” Real-life contenders don’t talk that way, nor do real-life presidents. (For what it’s worth, Vinick lost.)

Though I suppose “CEO of America” is an improvement over Hillary Clinton’s phrase: “We need a president who is ready on Day 1 to be commander in chief of our economy.” As Jerry Taylor put it at the time, “we eagerly await your orders, ma’am!”

Posted on Aug 28, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency, Domestic Policy | 4 Comments

Recent Cultishness

I’m in the Christian Science Monitor (plus a podcast) today.

And recently in the Utne Reader as well.

Posted on Aug 27, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency | No Comments

But Does He Ever Call?

The New York Times had a good story this Sunday exploring the irony that the best public affairs show in America is Jon Stewart’s “fake news” comedy half-hour. I cover similar themes in the last chapter of the book, when I’m looking (desperately, some have said) for reasons to be positive about the state of American political culture:

An enormous chunk of Generation Y, those born roughly after 1977, gets its political information from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, a comedy news program devoted to the idea that we’re led by fools….

Stewart’s merciless ridicule of President Bush has led some conservatives to complain that the show is politically biased. But the evidence doesn’t support that complaint. In a 2006 study, the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that the only overarching prejudice The Daily Show displays is indiscriminate contempt for the political class. According to CMPA, 98 percent of The Daily Show’s coverage of Republicans was negative, compared to 96 percent of its commentary on Democrats. The idea that anyone relying on the program as his or her main source of political news will end up woefully uninformed turns out to be false as well: Daily Show viewers tend to be more knowledgeable than most newspaper readers, even when factors such as education and political interest are taken into account….

In 2006, Daily Show alum Steven Colbert was the featured comic at White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the annual gathering of D.C. journalists where the president is expected to show up and be a good sport by putting up with some gentle ribbing. Colbert wasn’t gentle. In character as the moronic right-wing talk show host he plays on the Daily Show spinoff The Colbert Report, Colbert compared the Bush administration to the Hindenburg disaster, sarcastically applauded our “success” in Iraq, and suggested that the president was an ignoramus who refused to seek accurate information because “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” A former top administration aide who attended the dinner commented that the president was furious: he had “that look [like] he’s ready to blow.” Colbert’s performance was open, in-your-face disrespect for the presidency, and many people didn’t care for it. Many didn’t like it 10 years earlier at the White House Correspondents Dinner, when President Clinton had to sit uncomfortably while shock-jock Don Imus cracked jokes about Clinton’s marital infidelities (though, then as now, how offended one was largely depended on one’s party affiliation).

Despite the vestiges of hero-worship on display in the press and in popular entertainment, we treat the presidency with less sentimentality and less respect than we have in years…. Mocking those who rule us might seem immature, but consider the alternative: From FDR through LBJ, for nearly four decades, Americans forgot their heritage of political distrust, and looked to the Oval Office with a childlike faith in the occupant’s benevolence. The age of the heroic presidency left a legacy of ruinous wars, unrestrained executive surveillance, and repeated abuses of civil liberties. Perhaps a little disrespect is in order, and perhaps there are worse things, after all, than making the president a punching bag and punchline.

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Posted on Aug 19, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Cult of the Presidency | 22 Comments

It’s Midnight in America

You could be excused for getting that vibe from this McCain campaign video, what with its vaguely X-Files-esque theme music and apocalyptic imagery (am I the only one who finds the little girl picking flowers reminiscent of “Daisy” the famous anti-Goldwater ad from the ’64 campaign?). The Teddy Roosevelt tape is from TR’s unhinged speech to the 1912 Progressive Party convention, a speech that ends “we stand at Armageddon–and we battle for the Lord!”

Election 2008: the Messiah vs. the Prophet of Doom. Sigh. Whatever happened to normalcy? Where have you gone Warren Harding? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Posted on Jul 30, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency | 1 Comment

“Even Richard Nixon Has Got Soul”

A great lyric, and perhaps an expression of bottomless Christian charity, because if Nixon had it, there’s not a one of us doesn’t. One of the many wonderful details in Rick Perlstein’s compulsively readable Nixonland is the following memo “To: Mrs. Nixon “From: The President”:

It wasn’t a love note. “With regard to RN’s room, what would be the most desirable is an end table like the one on the right side of the bed which will accommodate TWO dictaphones as well as a telephone…. In addition, he needs a bigger table on which he can work at night.”

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Posted on Jul 27, 2008 in Asides, Cult of the Presidency | 8 Comments

Cult on Kindle

Kindle owners: I’m pleased to announce that the book just came out on Kindle, where it’s number 10,000 something with a bullet. You can download the free sample, and get the whole intro. If you like it, it’s $9.99 for the whole thing, which will be delivered instantly through Amazon’s series of invisible tubes in the sky. Actually, I’m so pleased about this, that I’m this close to paying the money for my own book, like a schmuck.

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Posted on Jul 18, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency | 4 Comments