Pistol-Whipping Presidential Idolatry
Gene Healy, a vice president at the Cato Institute, has written a new book called The Cult of the Presidency, though he admits that lately he's been thinking he should have entitled it The Futility of Hope. In listening to Barack Obama, Healy says,
it becomes clear that "the Audacity of Hope" is the belief in the promise of redemption through presidential politics. It's the idea that the president can save us. That when it comes to whatever it is that ails us -- whether it's unemployment or hurricanes, divisiveness or spiritual malaise -- the president has the cure. As Obama put it in a speech in South Carolina a couple of months back, with the right kind of leadership, we can "create a Kingdom right here on earth."You can read Healy's entire essay here.
But that view of the presidency couldn't be further from the Framers' perspective. The Framers never thought of the president as the man who could solve all of your problems, let alone save your soul. They knew human nature too well to ever think of investing so much power and responsibility in the hands of any one person.
Thinking back on it, I can remember the exact moment I realized there was something horribly wrong with the way Americans view the presidency. It was October 16, 1992. I was in college, several beers into watching the presidential debates with some friends. This particular debate -- with Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot -- was one of those awful Oprah-style town-hall formats. You know, where they get together an audience of supposedly normal Americans, and they have the candidates perched on stools, trying to look comfortable.
And up from the audience pops a guy who's a lefty right out of central casting -- a social worker with a ponytail. A guy who we later learn is named Denton Walthall. And Denton asks the most appalling question, which I'm going to quote at some length: "The focus of my work as a domestic mediator is meeting the needs of the children that I work with ... 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 three of you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it ..."
Looking back on this, I've thought about how presidents of old of might have responded to a grown man burbling about national needs and comparing Americans to children. Andrew Jackson, who fought dozens of duels in his life, probably would have grabbed Denton by the ponytail and started pistol-whipping him right there on national television. Silent Cal Coolidge, one of our truly great presidents, would have taken a different approach. He would have just sat there, staring coldly at Denton and shaming him through the awkward, awful silence.
But what was really appalling was the response Denton Walthall's question got. None of the candidates felt comfortable suggesting -- even politely -- that, hey, buddy, the president is not your mommy or daddy. Instead, all of them accepted his premise. Ross Perot said he'd cross his heart and take the pledge. Bill Clinton, being Bill Clinton, pandered. And Bush 41's answer was just painful. ...