Entries from September 2019 ↓

What’s So Great About Being POTUS?

From Amy Davidson Sorkin in the Sept. 9, 2019 issue of The New Yorker: “…Even (Beto) O’Rourke for whom, just last year, being a senator was a dream job, said that running for the same office now ‘would not be good enough for El Paso and it would not be good enough for the country.’…On a human level, it’s understandable that O’Rourke would want to directly take on [president Donald] Trump and his bigotry; on a political level, the logic is less clear.”

You think? But in America’s present frazzled state, logic is so devalued a commodity right now that if Mister Spock made a recon field trip anywhere on this rock he’d probably mutter something like “Fuck this shit!” in Vulcan, and pivot for home. Like Beto, we’re all a little too emotional about stuff we shouldn’t and we think (when we think at all) that watching a lot of television will calm us down.

Deep breath, America: The presidency is not where you should be investing all your attention. Congress in general and the senate in particular is where crucial decisions are made, and just as often, not made that affect your kids’ lives, to say nothing of their kids’ lives.

Granted, this process has been hampered, especially in recent years, by the stubborn impediment to the national blood vessels that is the senate filibuster whose dominion over that body’s regular order of business has solidified in the public mind Congress’ position as the place where Nothing Ever Gets Done. Bring out the raspberries and guffaws, but always remember that a helluva lot of damage can be done by not doing anything. And do you need to wonder who benefits most in spreading over the collective American mind the image of representative government as being such a morass that nobody should expect anything to get done?

So that’s why POTUS gets more attention that he should. But as others wiser than me keep telling people, to little avail, the president can’t tell anybody else what to do except the military over which he is commander-in-chief. Otherwise he’s just another legislator trying to convince people to go his way; not a goddam king !!!

And I hate like hell to get vulgar about this. But if you only knew how many times during Barack Obama’s presidency that I had to keep telling younger folks, and even older folks who likely slept through high school civics classes, that the president presides, executes, but does not rule the country. “Who does?” they ask. Well…in theory, you do, I say, but that just confuses them.

So I stopped answering that question and went back to my main point: What matters as much as voting for president, and sometimes more, is voting for the right person to represent you in the federal legislature. So for that matter is voting for your state governors, mayors, city councils, school boards, and so forth. All of which, I know, sounds too boring to contemplate. I agree. Contemplation of any kind is boring. But think of all the dreams that die and the lives that are ruined because of the dearth of collective contemplation. I’m asking you to think. Again.

In fact, let’s hear from somebody who knows even better than I do what it means to be a POTUS; somebody who once commanded one of the largest armies in world history. The General has a message to Beto O’Rourke and those who are similarly inclined to battle Donald Trump next year. (Oh and maybe Donald Trump needs to hear this, too):

 

 

“Anybody is a damn fool if he actually seeks to be president. You give up four of the very best years of your life. Lord knows it’s a sacrifice. Some people think there is a lot of power and glory attached to the job. On the contrary the very workings of a democratic system see to it that the job has very little power.”

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, 34th president of the United States

Off the top of my head, I blame Teddy White. If it weren’t for The Making of the President 1960 and White’s three quadrennial sequels, pursuing the presidency (a.k.a. the Highest Office in the Land etc. etc.) wouldn’t seem like the lumbering, furry and clunky pageant that eats up so much media space every three to four years. White’s books sold in bunches, even the 1964 installment that chronicled an election whose results were in retrospect a forgone conclusion practically from the start.

But blaming White is too easy. Better to blame the results of that 1960 campaign which is when we started on the road to wherever it is we are now. That was the year, as Norman Mailer wrote at the time, that America voted in its first matinée idol president. Granted it was by only a sliver and there were still hardheads who weren’t about to have a Catholic in the White House no matter how pretty he and his family looked on magazine covers. But the administration following that election marked the era when the president of the United States became undisputed Star of the Really Big Show that was American government. Unlike his immediate predecessor, John F. Kennedy robustly sought the presidency “because (as he put it in his last election-eve speech in Boston) it is the center of action.” This was when he was still running for the office. When he got there, it wasn’t as easy as he thought it’d be. But after the second year, he was beginning to get the hang of it enough to try reviving the old “bully pulpit” motif – one which has, alas, taken on newer, more literal meaning today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was the same Massachusetts U.S. senator John Kennedy who only three years before accepted a Pulitzer Prize for a book comprising portraits of U.S. senators who helped move the needle on History by going against the prevailing political climate. The title of the book was How To Put Your Ass on the Line For Little Fun and Less Profit. I kid of course. It was Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage written by Ted Sorenson (as everybody pretty much accepts now). What seems most authentic about the book, even today, is that Kennedy once believed that Congress mattered almost as much as the presidency and its members could be as consequential to the country’s direction; maybe more so as in the examples of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams (a more effective legislator than president), John C. Calhoun, James Blaine, Thomas Hart Benton, Joe Cannon, Robert Taft and George Norris.

 

 

Soren…I mean, Kennedy even decided to include a chapter on Edmund Ross, the Kansas senator who cast the lone vote against convicting the impeached president Andrew Johnson. It apparently didn’t matter to JFK at the time that Andrew Johnson was an incorrigibly retrograde racist and that Ross’s vote may not have been as idealistically motivated towards preserving the institution of the presidency as Kennedy’s account makes it seem. It was the gesture of courage itself that was heroic enough to Kennedy to make it glow in retrospect.

You wonder when JFK stopped believing in the messianic possibilities inherent in serving as a senator or representative. Then again, he probably never really believed in them at all, having seen whatever forces, seen and unseen, that Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned against his father when the latter was ambassador to Great Britain (even though Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. did as much if not more damage to himself than Roosevelt). Indeed, we may have started measuring eras in American history by presidential administrations with FDR’s, though some might argue that process began in earnest with the eight years his cousin Theodore was in the White House. But even at the start of the 20th century, young and bombastic TR had to share center stage with congressional titans like the aforementioned “Uncle Joe” Cannon, then a speaker of the house as powerful, obstinate and impregnable as senate majority leader Mitch McConnell seems now.

 

 

 

 

McConnell, to my mind, has been a more consequential political force in this nation’s government this decade than its two very different presidents. He’s imposed his will through stonewalling, cajolery, intimidation and, to be more specific about it, transformed the U.S. Supreme Court for generations, assuming we last that long. “But he’s only a senator,” a friend I’d thought was savvier about such things told me. Right, I said. And Keith Richards is only a rhythm guitarist and Mean Joe Greene was only a defensive lineman.

 

I mean…Yes, it’s somewhat nauseating to put someone as malign as Mitch McConnell in the same company as Clay, Webster, Adams, Taft, Robert Lafollette, Everett Dirksen, and the Lyndon Johnson who was, as Volume Three of Robert Caro’s epic biography labeled him, “Master of the Senate.” But it took gall of previously unimaginable dimension to have blatantly, cruelly mashed and baked the dreams of Merrick Garland into soot for the same of political expediency – and getting away with it. One also recalls the bone-chilling spectacle of McConnell staring laser-like at Susan Collins as she cast her vote for confirming Brett Kavanagh to the Supreme Court.

That, boys and girls, is Exercising Power. Whining about your predecessor’s deal with a media company is not.

So what to do? Getting rid of the filibuster has been on the table during this presidential campaign and there’s little clear consensus among the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls as to whether they’d support its suspension if their party regains senate control. (Elizabeth Warren’s adamantly for suspension; Michael Bennet’s against; Biden’s listed as “unclear” – huh?—and most of the others are considered “open” to the prospect, at best.) But it’s probably easier to just make sure that most of the Republican right-wingers now holding senate seats don’t come back and at least permit some legislation to pass.

But as with almost everything else that matters right now, a shift of perception is what’s needed above all else. In other words, stop thinking of our three branches of government (yes, there are three) as a pyramid where the executive branch is always on top. The best way to think of government, and I do mean “think” more than “feel,” is in lateral terms, which how I always imagined those troublesome Virginians like Madison and Jefferson saw it in theory.

This isn’t going to be easy. There was no television in 1787 and even though those Founding Fathers carry lots of star power to this day, none, except maybe Benjamin Franklin, would likely know how to act in front of a video-cam. But there once was a time in the succeeding centuries when senators were stars as big as, even bigger than the president. If we mean it when we claim to love our democracy, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to reimagine such times in our own.