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.
Focusing on dynasties is a bipartisan game, although it appears to be the case that whatever regard the prevailing culture holds for the great Republican families is magnified beyond all recognition for their counterparts across the aisle. It has been wildly amusing of late watching Hillary Clinton and her many acolytes flounder so spectacularly when asked to make the case for her candidacy. (The contenders so far appear to be that “leadership in general in a democracy [is] a relay race” – her words — that Clinton did a lot of flying while secretary of state, and that she is a woman.) But in all likelihood, many of those stuttering their way through their flustered and worthless answers will have been genuinely surprised by their failure. Names and connections do an awful lot of work in Washington, and one suspects that it was only when called upon to search for an explanation that it became obvious just how hollow and loathsome the words “well, she is a Clinton” ultimately sound.
Which is to say that America has not succeeded fully in abolishing titles of nobility, because Americans are human beings and human beings like nobility — formally titled or not. When Good Morning America’s Bianna Golodryga squealed last week that Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy would afford American citizens the opportunity to count down the days until “their own royal or, rather, presidential baby” was born, she was not merely betraying her own excitement but revealing something hardcoded into the human condition. So too Annie Groer of the Washington Post, who exclaimed that the news of Clinton’s unborn child constituted “not quite a royal baby announcement, but a pretty big deal” nonetheless.
At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I should say that it is not at all clear to me why it is a “pretty big deal” that a married woman whose father was president one and a half decades ago is going to have a child — especially given that there is no throne that requires filling. Still, I accept that I am an outlier. As Golodryga, Groer, and the whole cast of reporters who leaped merrily onto the story demonstrated, the myth of Camelot still looms large in the American psyche. For my many sins, I remain more in line with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, whose members famously had a rather befuddled King Arthur describing Camelot as “a silly place.” I cannot, however, escape the truth: People like monarchs; they like pomp and circumstance; and they like royal babies — even, it seems, when the grandparents are from Arkansas. As in England they like Buckingham Palace, the changing of the guard, and the annual honors list, in America they like Air Force One, presidential assertiveness, and “Hail to the Chief.” Slowly but surely, many voters have come to believe that they are being asked not to appoint a CEO whose role is to run the government and stay mercifully quiet for the rest of the time but to select an individual charged with distilling into his person the souls of 300-plus million people. Thus are the president’s more critical employers asked to consider “the dignity of the office,” exhibit “respect for the institution,” and acknowledge that he was the popular choice. Thus do additions to a former executive’s family become a national fascination.
It may be especially galling to watch Barack Obama flit between condemning income inequality and partying with Jay-Z, but it remains true that the White House itself was more profligate under George W. Bush and no less celebrity-happy under Ronald Reagan. It may be irritating, too, to witness the brazen disregard for separation of powers that this president’s frustrating second term has elicited, but the United States Constitution ultimately makes such matters a question for political and not legal resolution, and as of yet no pitchforks have been pulled out in defense of Article II. On a personal level, I wish Chelsea Clinton and her family all the best. As a matter of public conversation, I could not be less interested if I tried. In a more just world, her announcement would have been met with a nonchalant “that’s nice.” But we don’t live in that world, and we haven’t for quite some time.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.