NEW YORK — A new book by Christopher Anderson is called “George and Laura: Portrait of an American Marriage.” Andersen, who also wrote “Jack and Jackie” and “Bill and Hillary,” may not always be “respectful,” to quote a reviewer, toward America’s First Couples, but the appearance of his latest book — midway through the current presidency — and the prominence The New York Times book review has given it remind me of a phenomenon that puzzled me for several years after I settled in this city: the royal treatment that American people seem eager to accord their president.
Actually, I can’t pinpoint when the realization hit me. Was it when President Richard Nixon, enamored of the colorfully uniformed, feather-capped, gold-braided honor guards of the European countries he had visited, introduced something similar at the White House? My bewilderment, as I recall, was not so much with the goofiness of the idea as the willingness of his aides or his government to accommodate it because it was a presidential wish.
Or was it when a friend of mine wanted to know what the Japanese word for “folksy” might be? That adjective had suddenly become an admirable quality in Gerald Ford when he became president in 1974 following Nixon’s resignation in disgrace. An attribute that was not particularly glamorous had to be otherwise for the president. My friend’s joking suggestion was, I realized, that the president of the United States deserved special status.
Or was it when President Jimmy Carter’s attempt to do away with many of the “imperial” trappings of his office proved counterproductive? In particular, I remember his decision to dispense with “Hail to the Chief.” As he recalls in his memoir, “Keeping Faith” (Bantam, 1982), “We began to receive many complaints that I had gone too far in cutting back the pomp and ceremony, so after a few months I authorized the band to play ‘Hail to the Chief.’ “
Yes, there was something in the American psyche that wanted the president to be a monarch, or so I sensed. That perplexed me. I grew up in postwar Japan, where the Emperor was a “symbol,” an amorphous anachronism that resulted from political maneuvers necessitated by Japan’s defeat and was, therefore, faintly ludicrous. In contrast, we were taught, America was the ideal embodiment of democracy in which “all men are equal.”
Could it be that the American people are just like the Japanese in their need for someone to worship or adulate?
As it turns out, my puzzlement was not without foundation. In “How Democratic is the American Constitution?” (Yale, 2001), political scientist Robert Dahl tells us that the American presidency is highly anomalous — “an office with no equivalent in any of the other established democracies or, so far as I am aware, in any other democratic country.”
This is because, Dahl observes, “whereas in the other older democracies the roles of prime minister and ceremonial head of state are separated, in our system they are blended, not only constitutionally but also in popular expectations. We expect our president to serve both as chief executive and as a sort of ceremonial, dignified, American-style elected monarch and moral exemplar.” Hence an almost narcissistic stream of biographies of presidents. Hence books like “George and Laura.”
The constitutional part of it, in fact, seems ambiguous. Whether the president should be the American equivalent of a European monarch was a question that divided those who set out to create the U.S. government. In “John Adams” (Simon and Schuster, 2001), David McCullough tells us that it was none other than Adams, the first vice president, who wanted to emphasize the monarchical nature of the president of the United States.
In April 1789, when Congress held its first meeting, the first thing taken up for discussion was the “questions of ceremony and etiquette, such matters as how properly to address the President.” Adams spearheaded the debate or, as McCullough puts it, took part in it “more than the (Senate) members deemed appropriate.”
The king of England was the most important model to go by. Titles were essential. As Virginian Sen. Richard Henry Lee argued, “There was something in the human makeup that responded to them.”
As vice president and therefore president of the Senate, Adams concurred with South Carolina Sen. Ralph Izard’s proposal that “excellency” be part of the president’s title, pointing out that mere presidents were a dime a dozen: There are “presidents of fire companies and cricket clubs.”
Adams wrote: “I observed that it had been common while (Washington) commanded the army to call him ‘His Excellency,’ but I was free to own it would appear to me better to give him no title but ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr. President,’ than to put him on a level with a governor of Bermuda.”
McCullough suggests that, if not for Pennsylvanian Sen. William Maclay’s fierce opposition, the American president might today carry the official title of “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” Maclay repeatedly rose to admonish his Senate colleagues: “Let us read the Constitution. No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States.” Anything like “His Highness” was “contraband language” in America, he argued.
The urge to turn the American presidency into some sort of royalty did not win the day, as far as titles go. On the contrary, at least after Andrew Jackson, a populist approach apparently prevailed. Henry Adams, John Adams’ great-grandson, recalled visiting the 12th president, Zachary Taylor, as a boy in “The Education of Henry Adams,” a memoir he wrote in the third person: “Outside, in a paddock in front, ‘Old Whitey,’ the president’s charger, was grazing, as they entered; and inside, the President was receiving callers as simply as if he were in the paddock too.”
Henry Adams, whose immediate ancestors included two presidents, dryly concluded: “Anyone could be President, and some very shady characters were likely to be.”
I am glad to be able to add a Japanese eyewitness to the plebeian air maintained by the occupants of the White House during the period. In 1860, Sadayu Tamamushi, a member of the first Japanese embassy to visit Washington, was taken aback when President James Buchanan showed up to greet the embassy without any fanfare.
“When he entered or left the room,” Tamamushi wrote with admiration bordering on disbelief, “no one called out for those nearby to snap to attention. He was just like an ordinary man.” He was, of course, thinking of the elaborate steps that Tokugawa protocol required for the appearance of the shogun.
Indeed, the extent of monarchical pomp and ceremony accorded to the presidency may be of relatively recent vintage. If so, it may be worthwhile to examine how it has come about.
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