And Who Will Lead Us?: The Problem with Presidents
I was eating dinner with friends in a restaurant in Chevy Chase, circa 1990, when George Herbert Walker Bush and a small entourage walked across the dining room on the way to their table. Mr. Bush happened to be president of the United States at that time, and to my horror most of the diners broke into polite applause, many of them even rising from their chairs to honor the chief executive. I sensed that my friends—hardcore Democrats, both—were tempted to join in this modest ovation. Possibly they were inhibited by my presence and my sour frown of disapproval.
President George H. W. Bush had not achieved much worthy of applause that year, or any year as far as I was concerned. The clapping, I understood, was in deference to the office, not the man, and it was a part of capital culture I hadn’t previously encountered. As a journalist I’d crossed paths with a couple of presidents, including G.H.W. Bush, but I had never been in a private place where a president appeared unexpectedly. I was mildly appalled, but also amused. When I was living in Edinburgh, one of the things I had admired about the British, and especially the Scots, was the way they treated their elected officials—with more impatience than courtesy, the way you might treat incompetent employees who need frequent dressings-down to perform adequately. I remember my delight, and slight embarrassment, when the woman behind the counter at my fishmonger’s berated the local MP one morning, haranguing the poor man mercilessly while he waited for his plaice. She put him in his plaice, if you’ll forgive the pun. And the prime minister, the official closest to an American president in the UK’s hierarchy, is no exception to this rich tradition of constituent abuse.
The former prime minister Tony Blair, whose great political and moral blunder was his support for the American invasion of Iraq, is considered a war criminal by a substantial minority of Britons. He’s the target of a website that offers more than 2,000 pounds cash to anyone who attempts a citizen’s arrest. So far at least five citizens have collected, the most recent a bartender at the Tramshed restaurant in London. Blair’s rude treatment by unforgiving countrymen is a source of amusement and curiosity in Great Britain, but precious little sympathy. “I think there’s something about Blair that really makes a red mist descend upon people who would otherwise be able to judge more objectively,” speculated a professor of politics at Queen Mary University.
It makes me sad to think of Blair pursued through Hyde Park by bartenders with homemade arrest warrants while the American president who seduced and abandoned him (yet another Bush) is quietly building his library and scheming to revise his “legacy.” Every law-abiding citizen is entitled to some personal dignity—but it’s my firm belief that elected officials, even heads of state, are entitled to no more than the rest of us. When America elects some fatuous mediocrity to its highest office, why does it seem hardwired to treat him as if gravity and wisdom, even glamour, come along with the key to the White House?
That has been the great problem with the presidency. If Great Britain gets this right and the United States gets it wrong, it’s in part because Britons can settle all their class deference, celebrity hunger, and patriotic sentiment on their queen. The throne is a purely ceremonial institution, a high empty office that in this day and age could hardly be occupied comfortably by anyone who was not a well-bred woman born in the 1920s. It may not have much of a future. But at the present it focuses all the population’s archaic monarchist instincts on an actual monarch, leaving people free to treat politicians with no more respect than they deserve, as genuine democracy prescribes.
No one understood this better than George Washington—the great George Washington, to give this unusual man his due. He had barely defeated the armies of King George III when Tory elements here in the colonies urged him to become King George IV, or something very close to it. Washington recoiled. He was a natural democrat who demanded little deference and conspicuously offered little, not even to the God of his fathers. He attended Episcopalian services where he would neither kneel nor take communion, an example I have followed patriotically.
Few ordinary mortals are as free of petty vanities as George Washington. In the early years of the Republic the office of president rarely dwarfed the men who held it, a measure of the character and stature of the early presidents—most prominently Washington’s neighbors, those slave-owning aristocrats from Virginia. And the stern Adamses of Boston, father and son, were descended from Puritans who held vanity to be a deadly sin. But the expanding suffrage of “Jacksonian” democracy, along with a flood of immigrants and the growth of cities, brought new kinds of politics to the fore, and new, much smaller kinds of politicians. The second half of the nineteenth century produced one memorable, larger-than-life president, and he was murdered by John Wilkes Booth. By the turn of the twentieth century a template for our modern political system was in place. It wasn’t very pretty, or very likely to place a giant or a genius in the White House.
“As democracy is perfected,” wrote H. L. Mencken, American democracy’s most savage critic, “the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” Mencken published that prediction in July 1920. Four months later, the plain folks elected Warren G. Harding, ranked by historians as one of the least intelligent, least virtuous of American presidents. Mencken, who coined the word “Gamaliese” (Gamaliel was Harding’s middle name) to describe the mutilated syntax of the president’s speeches, disrespected him so venomously that Harding’s untimely death inspired him to write a sneering satire of the funeral train bearing the presidential remains on their final journey. The scandalized publisher of The Smart Set refused to print it, which ended Mencken’s celebrated reign as the editor of that popular magazine.
Liberals have hailed the ascension of a “downright moron” as a prophecy of Ronald Reagan or either of the Bushes who succeeded him (Gerald Ford, no rocket scientist either, was never actually elected). But in all fairness, America’s closest escape from Mencken’s dire prediction was the presidential election of 2008. The Republican nominee John McCain, who would have made a notably elderly president, chose the bewilderingly underqualified, and arguably cognitively-challenged Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate, who in victory might have lurked that proverbial single “heartbeat” from the nation’s highest office. Many of those plain folks Mencken despised still adore her; but I hope some of them read a recent news item reporting that the entire Palin family—mother, father, sister, and brother—had been restrained by police after turning an Alaska barbecue into a bloody brawl. Son Track was actually stripped to the waist and smeared with gore; daughter Bristol tried to drag a woman by her hair. It was a jaw-dropping reminder of how dreadfully low we can go when the democracy is inseparable from the celebrity culture.
Heaven forbid that I should sound partisan here, but when the Republican Party adopted its Southern strategy, absorbing most of the Dixiecrats alienated by the Voting Rights Act, it gained a lot of votes but sacrificed a lot of SAT points. One decade ago, the winner of my Brutal Honesty Award was Robert Brandon, chairman of the philosophy department at Duke University. When Duke was accused of excluding “conservatives” from its faculty, Brandon replied, with good humor and little tact, “We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.”
If you think you’ve already seen a lot of presidential candidates tailor-made for the satire of H. L. Mencken or Comedy Central, just watch the line-up for 2016. It’s not clear whether Mill or Mencken is the greatest prophet for our time. But it’s worth considering whether the people who hold any president in the highest esteem—who will applaud and genuflect when he enters the room—are the same ones who vote to make presidents of the lowest charlatans and chumps. During the early months of the 2012 primaries, when Donald Trump emerged briefly as the Republican frontrunner, I considered emigration to almost any place free of terrorists and malaria. A patriot has to draw the line somewhere.
“In all my life,” Mencken boasted, “I don’t recall ever writing in praise of a sitting president.” To sum up the Calvin Coolidge presidency, he wrote, “Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored.” He called Woodrow Wilson a liar and Franklin D. Roosevelt a fool. It was his nemesis Roosevelt who managed to retaliate, fittingly, against this cynic who jeered each president like “a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” At the Gridiron Club dinner for Washington correspondents in 1934, Roosevelt rose to read a vicious essay mocking the ignorance and incompetence of the press—written years earlier by Mencken himself, who sat humiliated and glowering a few tables away. FDR, like Abraham Lincoln, was a man elected at a time of grave national crisis who grew into his oversized office, and became the inspirational leader no one could have foreseen. Unlike Lincoln, he became the beloved King of America for which the presidency was originally and unfortunately designed. In the long run Mencken’s pathological loathing for Roosevelt harmed only Mencken, whose readers defected in droves when he appeared to hate FDR more than Hitler.
Mencken was intemperate and held personal grudges, which he furiously denied. Yet no American writer ever dissected the presidency, in all its unfulfilled grandeur, its disappointments and diminishing returns, with more wit or insight. His essay “Imperial Purple,” published in 1931, is the final word on presidential glamour and an antidote for all our latent royalist instincts. “All day long the right hon. lord of us all sits listening solemnly to bores and quacks,” he wrote. “Twenty million voters with IQs below 60 have their ears glued to the radio; it takes four days’ hard work to concoct a speech without a sensible word in it. Next day a dam must be opened somewhere. . . . The presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains.”
On the few occasions when they met, Franklin Delano Roosevelt—a droll gentleman himself—would call Mencken by his first name, Henry. Such an intimate address from a chief executive is an honor I can’t claim. The first sitting president I encountered was Richard Nixon, the most dishonest and psychologically troubled of them all. Almost encountered, to be exact. I was moving down the reception line at one of the “Newsmakers” parties my bosses at Time Inc. used to sponsor, a chance for editorial employees to meet some of the celebrities we wrote about. (At these events I also met Raquel Welch, Norman Mailer, Janis Joplin—whose date was the late albino bluesman Johnny Winter—and Josef Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva.) At the end of the line, next to the publisher of Time, I spotted Nixon. I dropped out of the line and walked over to the buffet. My brother, a pacifist, was a draftee in Vietnam at that moment, and I had no stomach for shaking hands with Tricky Dick. This was an excess of youthful passion, as I look back on it now. I’d like to be able to tell you whether he had a limp handshake, sweaty palms, perhaps a shifty way of avoiding my eyes.
I did shake hands with Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, but those moments yielded no insights beyond the fact that they both had firm handshakes. However, I once had an enlightening conversation with George McGovern, who might have made an excellent president. The only president I met on multiple occasions—and even approached alone more than once—was the unsinkable Bill Clinton. These presidential meetings were an off-the-record privilege accorded to guests at the Renaissance New Year’s conclaves at Hilton Head, S.C. My response to Bill Clinton was the same as everyone else’s. I was charmed and impressed, and, like most journalists who meet him, unsettled by his aggressive intelligence. The Menckenized press is conditioned to condescend to politicians, an arrogance that’s unfortunately only rarely misplaced. One New Year’s Eve, as I left the party, I shook Clinton’s hand at the door, said goodnight, and sincerely wished him “Good luck.” If memory serves me correctly, the Monica Lewinsky scandal was only two weeks away.
He weathered it, and the second presidential impeachment in American history, as he has weathered everything else. He ranks as the most gifted politician of his time, if not of all time. The electorate has forgiven, or forgotten, all his sins. In the polls his approval ratings are much higher than President Obama’s—and consistently higher than Hillary’s. Now the oddsmakers give him a better than 50-50 chance of reclaiming the White House, if only sideways as the husband of the first female president. Historian Douglas Brinkley compares him to “a snow leopard” for his amazing longevity at the highest altitudes of American politics. According to another historian, Julian Zelizer, “Clinton was the last president we’ve had who loved politics.”
That’s a mixed blessing, I’m afraid, and a questionable compliment. The political climate, even at “the highest altitudes,” has taken a drastic turn for the worse since Mencken’s day. The blizzards of attack ads aimed squarely at what Mencken would have called “voters with IQ’s below 60,” the secret funding and truckloads of dirty money from sinister billionaires, the gross polarization and shameless video circus of modern elections might have shocked the cynic from Baltimore. We’ve built a sewer even politicians hate to swim in—Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, and even George W. Bush have been criticized for squeamishness, of all things—for lacking the strong stomach required for the mud wrestling that power politics has become.
Yet one wrestler thrives in the mud, in the slime, in the bloody din. “Nothing is beneath him,” the New York Times’ Frank Bruni writes of Bill Clinton, “because he’s as unabashedly messy and slick as the operators all around him. He doesn’t recoil at the rough and tumble, or feel belittled or diminished by it. He relishes it.” There we have the once and future (?) president, the very model of a modern major player. In September he shared a stage with George W. Bush, praised him for “clarity and decisiveness,” and at one point placed his hand on W.’s knee. I’m serious. I’ll vote for the Clintons again if Hillary’s nominated—name a sane alternative—but nothing has ever convinced me that they have an ideal or a principle between them, except the inevitability of Billary.
There it rests, the presidency of the United States of America, a throne designed for a giant and chronically dishonored by dwarves. The rest of the world waits anxiously, every four years, to see what kind of candidate will claim the prize. From the other side of a dysfunctional, dilapidated two-party system, we hear that Jeb is the best of the Bushes and the best of the Republicans—two rather modest claims, in my view. The Bushes, a dynasty of mediocrities, seem to treat the American presidency like a rural sheriff’s office, or the chair of the local PTA that they can pass around from father to son to brother to sister to son-in-law. Many Americans encourage them. The Bushes, like the Clintons, believe in personal and family destiny—and what else? A royal family is the last thing this stumbling republic needs now. So who will lead us?