Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Executive Cult

From Gene Healy's new book, the Cult of the Presidency:

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He — or she — is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America's shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He's also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.

This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring. The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the "commander in chief" as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes. And with great responsibility comes great power.

It's difficult for 21st-century Americans to imagine things any other way. The UnitedStates appears stuck with an imperial presidency, an office that concentratesenormous power in the hands of whichever professional politicianmanages to claw his way to the top. Americans appear deeply ambivalentabout the results, alternately cursing the king and pining for Camelot. Butexecutive power will continue to grow, and threats to civil liberties increase, untilcitizens reconsider the incentives we have given to a post that started out so humble.

Excellent historical essay.