Politics & Policy

The Imperial Presidency

European royals make do with a less lavish lifestyle than the supposed citizen-executive of a so-called republic.

Rick Perry, governor of Texas, has only been in the presidential race for 20 minutes, but he’s already delivered one of the best lines in the campaign:

“I’ll work every day to try to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.”

This will be grand news to Schylar Capo, eleven years old, of Virginia, who made the mistake of rescuing a woodpecker from the jaws of a cat and nursing him back to health for a couple of days, and for her pains, was visited by a federal Fish & Wildlife gauleiter (with accompanying state troopers) who charged her with illegal transportation of a protected species and issued her a $535 fine. If the federal child-abuser has that much time on his hands, he should have charged the cat, who was illegally transporting the protected species from his gullet to his intestine.

#ad# So eleven-year-old Schylar and other middle-schoolers targeted by the micro-regulatory superstate might well appreciate Governor Perry’s pledge. But you never know, it might just catch on with the broader population, too.

Bill Clinton thought otherwise. “I got tickled by watching Governor Perry,” said the former president. “And he’s saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to Washington to make sure that the federal government stays as far away from you as possible — while I ride on Air Force One and that Marine One helicopter and go to Camp David and travel around the world and have a good time.’ I mean, this is crazy.”

This is the best argument the supposedly smartest operator in the Democratic party can muster? If Bill Clinton wants to make the increasingly and revoltingly unrepublican lifestyle of the American president a campaign issue, Governor Perry should call his bluff. If I understand correctly the justification advanced by spokesgropers for the Transport Security Administration, the reason they poke around the genitalia of three-year-old girls and make wheelchair-bound nonagenarians in the final stages of multiple sclerosis remove their diapers in public is that by doing so they have made commercial air travel the most secure environment in the United States. In that case, why can’t the president fly commercial?

You’d be surprised how many heads of state do. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands flies long haul on KLM. Don’t worry, she’s not in coach all night squeezed next to the mom with the crying baby and the party of English soccer hooligans baying moronic victory chants all night. She rides up front and has so many aides that sometimes she’ll book the entire first class cabin! By contrast, the president of the United States took his personal 747 (a transatlantic aircraft designed to hold 500 people that costs a fifth of a million dollars per hour to run) to go from Washington to a Democratic party retreat in Williamsburg, Va., 150 miles away.

Queen Margrethe of Denmark flies commercial, too. For local trips she has a small Challenger jet. When she’s not zipping around in it, they use it for fishery enforcement off Greenland. Does that detail alone suggest that a thousand-year dynasty dating back to King Gorm the Sleepy (regnant 936–958) travels in rather less luxury than the supposed citizen-executive of a so-called republic of limited government? Undoubtedly King Gorm the Sleepy would have slept a lot better on Air Force One, yet the Danish royal family seems to get by.

Symbols are important. In other circumstances, the Obamas’ vacation on Martha’s Vineyard might not be terribly relevant. But this is a president who blames his dead-parrot economy on “bad luck” — specifically, the Arab Spring and the Japanese tsunami: As Harry S. Truman would have said, the buck stops at that big hole in the ground that’s just opened up over in Japan. Let us take these whiny excuses at face value and accept for the sake of argument that Obama’s Recovery Summer would now be going gangbusters had not the Libyan rebels seized Benghazi and sent the economy into a tailspin. Did no one in the smartest administration in history think this might be the time for the president to share in some of the “bad luck” and forgo an ostentatious vacation in the exclusive playground of the rich? When you’re the presiding genius of the Brokest Nation in History, enjoying the lifestyle of the super-rich while allegedly in “public service” sends a strikingly Latin American message. Underlining the point, the president then decided to pass among his suffering people by touring small town Minnesota in an armored Canadian bus accompanied by a 40-car motorcade. In some of these one-stoplight burgs, the president’s escort had more vehicles than the municipality he was graciously blessing with his presence.


By sheer coincidence, I happen to be writing a conspiracy thriller in which a state-of-the-art Canadian bus transporting Pres. Michael Douglas on a tour of Minnesota goes rogue and takes over the government of the United States. Eventually, crack CIA operative Keira Knightley breaks in the rear window and points out to the Canadian bus that it’s now $15 trillion in debt. In a white-knuckle finale, the distraught and traumatized bus makes a break for Winnipeg pursued by Chinese creditors.

#ad# Where was I? Oh, yes. Instead of demonstrating the common touch — that Obama is feeling your pain Clinton-style — the motorcade tour seemed an ingenious parody of what (in Victor Davis Hanson’s words) “a wealthy person would do if he wanted to act ‘real’ for a bit” — in the way that swanky Park Avenue types 80 years ago liked to go slumming up in Harlem. Why exactly does the president need a 40-car escort to drive past his subjects in Dead Moose Junction? It doesn’t communicate strength, but only waste, and decadence. Are these vehicles filled with “aides” working round the clock on his super-secret magic plan to “create” “jobs” that King Barack the Growth-Slayer is planning to lay before Congress in the fall or winter, spring, whatever? If the argument is that the president cannot travel without that level of security, I note that Prince William and his lovely bride did not require a 40-car motorcade on their recent visit to Los Angeles, and there are at least as many people on the planet who want a piece of Wills and Kate as do of Obama. Like the president, the couple made do with Canuck transportation, but in their case they flew in and out on a Royal Canadian Air Force transport described as “no more luxurious than a good motor home”: The shower is the size of a pay phone. It did not seem to diminish Her Royal Highness’s glamour.

I wish Governor Perry well in his stated goal of banishing Washington to the periphery of Americans’ lives. One way he could set the tone is by forgoing much of the waste and excess that attends the imperial presidency. Believe it or not, many presidents and prime ministers manage to get by with only a 14-car or even a four-car motorcade. I know: Hard to imagine, but there it is. A post-prosperity America that has dug itself into a multi-trillion-dollar hole will eventually have to stop digging. When it does so, the government of the United States will have to learn to do more with less. A good place to start would be restoring the lifestyle of the president to something Calvin Coolidge might recognize.

Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is author of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. © 2011 Mark Steyn.

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist. That’s to say, his latest book, After America (2011), is a top-five bestseller in ...

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