THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
Last week, rumors circulated around Washington, D.C., that Secretary of State Colin Powell would resign at the end of George W. Bushs current term. Asked about the rumors while at the presidents vacation home in Texas, Powell replied, I serve the president. There were two things wrong with that response. First, it didnt answer the question. Second, it was not true.
Mr. Powell, you dont serve the president. You serve the American people.
In its second season, the excellent TV show The West Wing had an episode in which President Jeb Bartlett, the series main character, played by Martin Sheen, confronts a female radio talk-show host at a reception in the White House. The woman, a conservative who despises Bartletts liberal politics, refuses to stand when the president enters the room. The president notices that she is seated, but at first he says nothing about it. Instead, he proceeds, with drenching sarcasm, to denounce the womans well-known, Leviticus-based dislike of homosexuals, pointing to other Old Testament passages that no one would apply literally. (Example: My chief of staff, Leo McGary, insists on working on the Sabbath," says Bartlett. "Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself? Or is it okay to call the police?). Only at the end of his one-sided debate does it become clear why the president is really so upset with the woman. One last thing, he says to her. While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building when the president stands, nobody sits. Then he walks away.
Liberals are expected to cheer Bartlett for defeating this conservative woman in verbal warfare and for demolishing her Biblical arguments against homosexuality. Im a liberal. I think that homophobia is stupid, and that the Dr. Lauras of the world who spread it are dangerous. But at the end of that scene, all I could think was, Good for her! I wouldnt stand for the president, either! As far as Im concerned, in that scene its Bartlett who's the tight-ass.
Its time we put an end to the royal presidency. The president is not our king. He is a public servant. He serves at the pleasure of the American electorate. If anything, he should stand when you and I walk into the room. Americans do not kneel before kings. We should not stand for presidents.
At the State of the Union address, the members of Congress should remain seated when the president walks in. There should be no applause. There should be no basking in his smiles or grabbing for the glory of his handshake. It is all unseemly, humiliating, and unAmerican. At press conferences, the reporters should remain seated when the president enters and should not stand when he leaves. Hail to the Chief, a brass mockery of American democracy, should be silenced forever.
Recently, a Republican acquaintance took me to task for referring to our current president as Bush instead of President Bush. Ah, those Republicans. They love their titles and their class system and their little aristocratic rituals that keep everyone in his place. Deep in their hearts, they wish we still had a king. They want their president spelled with a capital K. They want King George.
(How curious it is that the British, whose aristocratic pretensions we fought against in the Revolutionary War, treat their own head of state, the prime minister, with far less deference than we treat our president. When the prime minister addresses the House of Commons, he routinely hears boos, hisses and catcalls. Our own president could learn much from such sounds.)
Its been argued that we should stand when the president walks into the room because its a way of showing respect for the office. Well, when an abstraction figures out how to walk into a room, then Ill figure out how to respond. I can imagine standing when love strolls into the room, or when kindness tiptoes in, or when dignity strides in. But I've never seen an office wearing shoes, and by itself, an "office" commands no respect.
Its been said that when we stand for the president, we are showing respect for democracy. No, I think we are simply demeaning ourselves before vestigial aristocracy. We stand, but it is the equivalent of Asian kowtowing--forehead to the dirt in the presence of the emperor.
Its been said that we should stand for our current president out of respect for those who have held the office in the past--the Washingtons and the Jeffersons and the Lincolns. But I would not stand for Washington or Jefferson or Lincoln, either--and I think they would understand why not. Washington refused the offer to become king. Jefferson hated the idea of an American royalty. Lincoln was, at least initially, a humble man who squirmed at shows of obsequiousness.
Besides, if I were to stand for the current president, would I also be standing for the Bill Clinton who lied? For the Reagan who was senile? For the Nixon who was corrupt? For the FDR who tried to stack the Supreme Court?
If anything, Americans stand (literally and figuratively) for the present, not the past. But there is little in the present--or in the present president--worth standing for.
The pretender-to-the-throne currently in the White House loves the trappings of the royal presidency. His handlers love to place him behind the royal seal and surround him with the royal colors and serenade him with the royal musicians and flatter him with the royal marines who salute him every time he enters the royal helicopter. Those same handlers love to raise him above the masses and land him on the royal aircraft carriers, and they no doubt say, Thank you, Mr. President every time he dismisses them from his sight, even if he has, in the five minutes previous, behaved like a fool.
I say, No more. No more saluting. No more standing. No more trumpeting. No more kissing the kings ring. The king is dead. For Americans he died in 1776. Stay seated now, and let him rest in peace.