At this moment, scores of thousands of Americans are idling in traffic jams, staring at CNN on airport TV screens, Googling swine flu on their iPhones, or waiting in line to buy surgical masks. Yet in the midst of this mundaneness, many of them are living vicariously in another, altogether more splendid world. They are, in their mind’s eye, frolicking in the Rose Garden with the Obama girls’ Portuguese water puppy, or toning their triceps with Michelle in the exercise cabin at Camp David, or sneaking out of the Oval Office with POTUS himself for a cigarette break. There may even be a few hardy fantasists lunching spiritually with Rahm Emanuel in the White House Mess.
The surgeon general, with the little labels he affixes to our beer bottles and cigarette packs, warns us of the dangers we run in drinking deep or lighting up. A similar label, affixed to our images of the president and his entourage, is probably not less warranted: “Consume this sort of thing at your own risk.”
Not that there is anything offensive in the appearance or manner of Barack Obama. I saw part of his press conference on TV the other night and thought him charming. But I am bothered by how often my own brain and, from what I can tell from their conversations, other people’s brains revert to our presidents, and in particular to the present one.
There is something not right in this. In a healthy society the leader in the remote capital, be he king, commissar, or republican magistrate, ought not to occupy so much prime real estate in the souls of the citizenry.
Dreams from My Father has given way to dreams from my president. More and more people report encountering the head of state in their sleep. The editors of Time and Newsweek might as well dispense with even the pretense that they are concerned with any subject other than Obama and put him on every cover. He is their Sun King, around whom all else revolves: Possibly they hope he will bail out their faltering rags. Even the ordinarily unpolitical People has taken to rendering unto Barack the things that are Barack’s. It recently anointed Rahm Emanuel as one of its 100 Most Beautiful.
The Roman Senate used to enroll the emperors in the pantheon of the gods. Divine honors were accorded to divus Augustus and divus Claudius. Today, writers and TV blurts foster the cultish adoration of the chief executive and nurture a modern Caesarism. The journalists’ idolatry of Camelot prepared the way for this sort of adulation, but the fetish that is now being made of the muscle tone of Mr. and Mrs. President is even more frankly lurid: It is a kind of political pornography.
Journalists are not solely to blame for the prurient style in American politics. They are merely panders, attempting to gratify a lust they did not themselves create. In an age of civic decadence, citizens find curious substitutes for their unrequited passion for civic romance. The magazine rack beside the grocery-store cash register has long borne witness to our morbid preoccupation with such things as cellulite and the cinema, and with the peccadilloes of celluloid stars whose lives we have come to know better than those of our neighbors. Ever since Kennedy, presidents as much as movie stars have been the object of this absurd Bovarysme, a desire to live vicariously with Beautiful Personages on a sham Olympus. Emma Bovary daydreamed of spending quality time with Scottish barons and Parisian duchesses. We who inherit her pathologies voyeuristically follow the pool reporters to the imperial gymnasium: “Obama’s motorcade left his Kailua vacation home at 7:08 a.m. today and arrived at the Semper Fit Center on Marine Corps Base Hawaii less than ten minutes later for a workout. . . . ”
It was not supposed to be this way. The White House is considerably smaller, not only than a royal palace, but even than such a ducal château as Chatsworth or Blenheim. It was consecrated to an older ideal of republican simplicity. Except for the Oval Office itself, which is pristine, the West Wing is a little cramped and shabby, rather less imposing than the offices of a good New York law firm. But the vision of a spare and sober democratic dignity has died away. Today the president makes up for his diminutive residence with a jumbo jet, which he occasionally dispatches to buzz a metropolis and overawe the populace.
It would be better, of course, if we could take as much interest in what is going on in our own neighborhoods as we do in the gymnastic routines and well-appointed aircraft of the president and a handful of movie stars. Admitted to a spurious intimacy with the cittadini of Washington and Hollywood, the American citizen today moves diffidently through his own town, dropping his eyes before those of his fellow citizens who stand in line with him in a marketplace that long ago ceased to be a community.
Patronizing lectures by President Obama about the need for community service are probably worse than useless, since they encourage a faith in phony solutions. Not less worthless is the president’s recent expansion of the national-service mandarinate, AmeriCorps — the very name of which is, in its Newspeak banality, evidence of our tendency to turn the problem of community over to the bureaucracies of the state.
The fact is that our community life today is exceedingly dull. Programs like AmeriCorps, founded in the belief that community is an artifact not of culture but of politics, only make it duller. Sit in a café in one of the old squares of Europe, and you see how much better the civilization managed these things in the past. You find, in the old public spaces of the West, a civic artistry that draws people in, and makes community into a form of pleasure rather than of penance.
Unless we find a way to revive those dead civic traditions, our communities will continue to languish, and we will continue to turn for imaginative stimulus to the bogus showmanship of our modern Caesars.
– Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.