From Liberty Street: The Cult of the Presidency

Reading web threads and other expressions of political opinion, I have recently come across numerous charges that those who oppose President Bush are exhibiting manifestations of paranoid neurosis. The dislike of the president is said to have got completely out of hand, and has surged beyond any rational cause.

That may well be true in a limited number of cases. Yet, the president's record is replete with evidence that he supports changes in the nation that many citizens, for perfectly sensible reasons, regard as horrific. The president's policies, rather than any crazed abhorrence, are cause enough for his being unusually controversial.

Still, it's true that too many of us are wrapped up in a belief that the president's personal character is either our salvation or our doom. Extreme emotion about the president, whether it's adoration or disgust, tends to be colored by an unrealistic assessment of his office and an almost religious concept of its function in American life. It may be that a majority of citizens have got in the habit of regarding the president as not only the most important person in the nation but as a man whose importance rises so high above anyone else's as to transform him to superhuman status.

We need to remember that the president is not only a government official but also the head of a political party. In voting for a president, we vote not just for a man but for a huge array of people who will be making thousands of decisions, many of which will never command an article in a major newspaper, but which, in the aggregate, shape the personality not necessarily of the nation but of the nation's government for a significant period of time. One small example will, perhaps, show what I mean. In the spring of 2003, studies published in major medical journals indicated that lead was more toxic than had been previously supposed and that approved lead levels in the blood could cause reduced mental ability. Consequently, there were calls for reducing the approved levels. Two physicians who had spoken in favor of reduction, were Bruce Lamphere and Michael Weitzman. Lamphere had been nominated to join the FDA's Lead Poisoning Advisory Committee and Weitzman was already a member. The Bush administration killed the nomination of Lamphere and dumped Weitzman from the panel. William Banner, who had testified for the lead industry in court cases, was placed on the committee instead. That was Republicanism. Most Americans never heard of Lamphere, Weitzman or Banner, yet their part in advising the government about public health was significant. And they played, or did not play, a part based on the party in power. Did the president, personally, have anything to do with what happened to them? Who knows?

The president is more a symbol of certain actions and attitudes than he is a decision-maker about them, more a captive -- often a willing captive, of course -- of certain groups than the leader of them. We are childish to think that the president, by himself, will either look after us or harm us. And we would be well-advised to concentrate more on which groups and attitudes we want to guide the government than we do on the personality of the man who gets to sit in the Oval Office.

It may be a metaphysical conundrum whether we can separate a man's policies from the man himself. I admit that I don't find Mr. Bush to have a pleasing personality. But if he were withdrawn from the power structure I could endure being in the same room with him  in the way I actually do tolerate companions who don't inspire my respect. If he didn't hold an influential office, I don't think he would interest me much. Even now, reprehensible as I find the policies he represents -- or that, perhaps, own him -- I don't want any harm to come to him personally. I wish him, as I wish all my fellow citizens, long life, good health, and the love of family.

I don't join those who want to see him impeached, because I think the impeachment process is bad for the country and should be employed only in the most extreme cases. But I do want to see his power over the next three years reduced to the lowest level possible. I want him to be hemmed in and stymied. The notion that a weakened president is always bad for the country is nonsense. It's a dogma of the cult we have made of the office. We could do very well with a merely ceremonial president for the next several years.  It would allow the invigoration of other elements of the government which have become subservient to the president, particularly the Congress of the United States.

The president is not a demigod and his office is not our only instrument of effective and humane government. We need to learn that more perhaps than we need any other political lesson.

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