182. "Today We Elect a President-Monarch" The New York Times, (November 8, 1989). Reprinted in Daily News, Los Angeles (November 1988).
Many of my colleagues on campus and in the media scoff at the American people. Even those who are neither liberal nor Democratic sneer at Americans’ excessive preoccupation with appearances rather than substance, with symbols rather than issues. Actually, the people have spoken clearly in favor of a constitutional reform: They want a system like Britain’s.
Americans want a government led by a queen-like head of state, backed up by a cerebral, competent chief of staff. They don’t want to think of the President as mainly chief executive officer of the Government.
This yearning explains much of what we have witnessed and bemoaned in the Presidential campaign.
Americans want their President-queen to speak for what they consider the “right” positions: symbolic issues like the Pledge of Allegiance and the death penalty.
Yes, pledging allegiance to the flag before every meal does little to bolster one’s patriotism, but the willingness to recite the pledge is a convenient symbol of one’s state of heart. Like flag-waving, it is more common among those concerned about patriotism than among those preoccupied with individual rights and due process.
Similarly, while it is true that even if we hanged criminals from lampposts and this reduced crime only to a limited extent, supporting the death penalty does indicate distress about the victims of crime, and less about the rights of criminals. Americans are, wisely, quite dubious that the President can or will do much about such complex, frustrating issues.
If our President-queen never called a news conference and routinely revved up the helicopter whenever reporters began shouting questions, the majority of Americans hardly would be perturbed. After all, the press is rude - that is, if you consider the President a queen. The media pepper our head of state with questions that “should be” addressed to the White House staff, to cabinet secretaries - but should not trouble the leader who personifies us all.
And if the President-queen does answer a question on technical or detailed matters with “I don’t recall,” or he simply fumbles through, what does it matter if we have decided that Government management is not his job?
Further, why expect the President-queen to develop innovative policy proposals on health care, housing or education or settle conflicts in his Administration?
Rather, he is to stay above the fray and speak to and for what unites (most) of us. Let the chief of staff worry about policy and management. The President-queen can bless, communicate and symbolize the consensual result.
Most Americans prefer the head of state to be soothing, reassuring and positive. The chairman of the Federal Reserve can sound the fiscal alarm, the Pentagon can worry about the Soviet arms build-up and the eggheads can wring their hands about low scholastic aptitude test scores.
The President is to hold his - and our - head high. But some mutter, “Wait!” When a crisis comes in, say, the financial markets, the people will want a “real” leader. Not really.
In a crisis, the people will look for even more reassurance and a firm sense of direction rather than learned expositions on the complexities of the issues the bedevil us.
Most Americans seem not to mind it, for instance, following events such as the massacre of marines in Lebanon, the President makes a truly tough speech. However, in world filled with nuclear weapons and potential Vietnams, the people - especially after they cool off - would rather follow a figurehead who carries a very small stick. It’s fine for the President-queen to deliver strong declarations - as long as we do not have to live up to them.
Intellectuals may prefer a more cerebral and hands-on President, but the majority of Americans, who wish to be heard, have spoken.
The next four years will tell us all if a British-like system works for America under more challenging conditions that the last eight.