Depressing as it might be for the radicals among us to admit, John Adams’s failed and embarrassing quest to have the nation’s president referred to as “His Majesty” or “His High Mightiness” was the exception rather than the rule — an early win for republicanism before the inevitable losses started stacking up. Time after time during the last century or so, the White House has suggested that it should perhaps accrue a little more power, perhaps spend a little more money on itself, and perhaps place the administration a little closer to the center of public life. In each and every instance, the public has acquiesced. Alas, this is not Calvin Coolidge’s country anymore. Where once the president fretted over the cost of pencils and the expense of state dinners, he now has a fleet of aircraft, a billion-dollar household budget, and a trio of calligraphers. “His Majesty,” indeed.
In the abstract, at least, Americans prefer to think of themselves as being congenitally opposed to aristocracy and the trappings of monarchy. The notion of unceremonious men who rise from the log cabin to the White House has considerable purchase in the national imagination, and, during elections, at least, it still matters considerably. In the first Naked Gun, Leslie Nielsen’s character Frank Drebin rather awkwardly explains to the visiting Queen of England what he perceives to be his countrymen’s position on the matter. “Protecting the Queen’s safety is a task that is gladly accepted by Police Squad,” Drebin assures the press. “No matter how silly the idea of having a queen might be to us, as Americans, we must be gracious and considerate hosts.”
But is it really
perceived as being so silly? When, in 1939, a British king first visited the United States, the distance between the pretensions of the visitors from the old country and the humility of his hosts was considerable — and even with a Roosevelt at the helm. A few years earlier, the first lady, Eleanor, had attempted to refuse Secret Service protection on that grounds that the presence of armed guards “made her look more like a Queen flanked by an Imperial Guard.” Now, when an American president visits London, it is impossible for outsiders to tell which is the citizen-executive of a republic and which is the monarch of an ancient kingdom. This, I’d venture, is not progress.
Still, it evidently pleases the press, which tends to treat America’s great families much as the more heavily starch-laden of the Tory newspapers in my country of birth treat the British aristocracy: presuming that they have picked up the prerequisites to good leadership by osmosis, thrilling to the idea of full rolodexes and readymade networks, and taking it as a given that every member of that class wishes to run for public office. One supposes that those who are perennially confused by the difference between causation and correlation might be forgiven for seeing the Bush name as an electoral asset: Not since 1980 has the Republican party won a presidential election without a Bush on the ticket — and, for that matter, it has not won an election without a Bush or a Nixon on the ticket since 1928. Nevertheless, one really doesn’t have to be an ornery old skeptic to see that the media’s recently hysterical interest in Jeb Bush’s prospects existed primarily to generate and to indulge some exciting storytelling. As we have learned so well from Walt Disney, compelling fairytales tend to involve princes not paupers, and no whimsical castle is complete without a feudal village at its foot. Bush’s role as the respectable conservative choice is based to a limited extent on his policy positions and to a large extent on his mien, which, it seems, is elegant and courtly in just the manner that the capital’s political writers would like to be.