Given that National Review’s unofficial fight song is “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” I’ll cut the Viscount of Alabama and Lord Bandersnatch of Oxford some slack regarding their enthusiasm for Mrs. Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg’s remarkable achievement in having outlived her father by sixty years. I’m sure she is a lovely lady.
Monarchy is all good and fine for the British, I suppose, and the French could probably use a restoration, not having had very good luck trying to operate a republic. But I dislike the creeping royalism of American politics, a trend for which conservatives bear some responsibility, especially when it comes to the presidency. I am in the minority on this, but I cringe a little every time I hear the expression “beneath the dignity of the presidency” or “respect for the office of the presidency” or the like. I find it difficult to believe that anybody who has seen a presidential campaign up close believes that there is a great deal of dignity in the office — there’s little enough in the pursuit of it.
The president, unlike Mrs. Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, is not intended to be the personification of our national identity. The president is simply the chief executive in the federal bureaucracy, and the government is not the receptacle of our national greatness. The cult of the presidency is bad for America. (And the cult of the commander in chief is even worse.) Nobody talks about the dignity of the office of dog-catcher, but the president is a manager of dog-catchers. The world will be forever indebted to George Will for resurrecting Max Weber’s term “caesaropapism” as a discription of American attitudes toward the presidency.
But it isn’t only the presidency. Political job descriptions are in the process of being transformed into semi-aristocratic titles. It is to my ear ridiculous when politicos refer to Mitch McConnell as “Leader McConnell” or Nancy Pelosi as “Leader Pelosi.” It is even worse when politicians refer to themselves that way, as Nancy Pelosi does. Long-out-of-office functionaries continue to be known as Governor Palin or Governor Sununu or President Bush (or President Bush) until death. It is part of the American way that we do not invest people with titles. Elected officials are not our rulers; they are our employees, a condition about which they need constant reminding. I think we ought to refer to them by their surnames, with no Mr. or Mrs., with just a hint of condescension in the voice, the way English people refer to their servants in Merchant Ivory movies or Montgomery Burns addresses Smithers.
As a newspaper editor, I developed a callous from deleting the ridiculous “Esq.” that lawyers append to their names. Unless you are carrying a sword for a knight, you are not a squire. I had not encountered that lamentable habit until I moved to Philadelphia’s Main Line, where I also learned that toadies insisted on referring to Walter Annenberg as “Ambassador” until the end of his days, when they might better have called him “Lord High Protector of TV Guide.” (When I was a student at the University of Texas, the dean of students had the wonderfully appropriate surname of Justice. The fun thing was that Dean Justice was married to a man named Dean, so if you called her at home asking for Dean Justice you never knew who you were going to get.)
And referring to members (not Members) of Congress as “honorable”? Prove it first.
Ironically, my English colleagues seem to be more attuned to the silliness of American entitling than are my native colleagues, especially those living in Washington, where one absorbs that kind of thing like asbestos in the air. We should leave the royalism business to the Brits. They’re good at it.