Culture

Let’s Don’t Put On a Show

President Obama exits Marine One in June, 2010 (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
A conspectus against political grandiosity

The only thing I know about Kasim Reed is that he’s the mayor of Atlanta and I hate him.

If you’ve had the experience of going through the Atlanta airport recently, you’ll be familiar with the deeply grating voice of Mayor Reed, who greets travelers with self-aggrandizing North Koreastyle loudspeaker announcements in which he extols the virtues of his boring, sweaty little city and labors mightily to associate himself with military men. It’s the 500-megawatt-amplifier version of those dumb signs in which Governor Andrew Cuomo welcomes Fairfield County commuters to New York every time they cross the line from Connecticut: Using public infrastructure for purely self-promotional purposes, as though all of New York State were a gubernatorial fiefdom and all of Atlanta Kasim Reed’s personal playground.

I may have mentioned before that I detest the State of the Union address, that batty, pseudo-monarchical pageant that serves as the Easter Vigil Mass in the presidential cult. And while that horrifying spectacle may be the worst of our national offenses against good taste and republican manners, there are a few other similar indicators of the fact that our political leaders sometimes forget who works for whom.

For example:

Presidential and vice-presidential portraits in federal offices, and those of Cabinet secretaries, too. The need to have Dear Leader’s visage, or that of one of his minions, looming over every government office represents the worst kind of toadying before power. The State Department couldn’t be bothered to keep track of Mrs. Clinton’s criminal mishandling of classified documents when she was secretary of state, but her underlings managed to find the time to hang her portrait all over the place. There is, of course, an “official portrait” of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, in which she wears an expression that makes one nervous for Hansel and Gretel. We know what these people look like. (My God, do we.) You know what we should post in every federal office instead? Their expense accounts.

Citizens are not mere peons who move about at the convenience and sufferance of their masters.

Motorcades. Barack Obama decides he wants to swoop in at the last minute and watch a Little League game, and the resultant ensnarling of traffic in our nation’s hideous capital takes hours to get unwound. And it’s not just the president: When one D.C. commuter complained about sitting in place a quarter hour for the passing of an official motorcade, another replied: “Waiting for 15 minutes lets you know you’re getting the real deal. If you only wait 3 minutes it’s just the secretary of commerce.” The Washington Post, cataloguing these episodes, quoted a woman writing on Twitter: “Obama motorcade flying by while you’ve been waiting a cold 30 minutes at the bus stop really puts your life in perspective. He’s never cold.” Citizens are not serfs. They have business of their own to go about, and they are not mere peons who move about at the convenience and sufferance of their masters. One of the ways in which you know that the Swiss do this better than we do: When Didier Burkhalter was president, he took the subway to work. Other Swiss leaders have done the same. British PM David Cameron has been known to fly commercial when traveling internationally, and so did Tony Blair. The American president? Never.

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Presidents and vice presidents saluting soldiers. Knock it off, Mr. President. You are the civilian president of a democratic republic in which the military is subservient to elected leaders. You are not Napoleon, or Bismarck, or even de Gaulle. On this I defer to the great historian John Lukacs, who wrote in 2003: “This gesture is of course quite wrong: Such a salute has always required the wearing of a uniform. But there is more to this than a decline in military manners. There is something puerile in the Reagan (and now Bush) salute. It is the joyful gesture of someone who likes playing soldier. It also represents an exaggeration of the president’s military role.” Eisenhower slipped up on this from time to time, but in the past several decades it has become ubiquitous, and Lukacs is correct to connect it with the sentimentalization of the military and war itself and the expansion of commander-in-chief grandiosity.

What kind of free, self-governing, self-respecting country has guys in suits carrying guns and business cards that read ‘Secret Service’?

Using titles for life. Who are these people I see on the Sean Hannity show? Speaker Gingrich? Governor Palin? Who is this Secretary Clinton people talk about? Newt Gingrich hasn’t been speaker of the House since the tail end of the last century, and the years that have passed since he was speaker are many more than the years he served in that role; Sarah Palin hasn’t been a governor since Nickelback had a hit with “Gotta Be Somebody.” Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 is pretty clear on titles of nobility, but we’ve invented phony, down-market substitutes, transmogrifying political job titles (“Leader McConnell,” really?) into substitutes for old-fashioned Sirs and Lords and Viscounts. The proper way to refer to the former governor of Alaska is “Mrs. Palin.” She isn’t “Governor Palin,” because she isn’t the governor. Governor Walker is the governor.

Swarming Amtrak stations with Secret Service goons just because Joe Biden is on a train. Nobody cares about Joe Biden, and I mean that literally, by which I mean what Joe Biden means when he says “literally,” which is the opposite of literally. But, literally, stop it. Also: “Secret Service”? What kind of free, self-governing, self-respecting country has guys in suits carrying guns and business cards that read “Secret Service”? I’m for calling things what they are: Department of War, National Slush Fund for Corporate Favoritism, Praetorian Guard. As we all know, and every hooker in Colombia knows, these guys couldn’t keep a secret to save their lives.

I like theater. That’s why I go to plays. We should keep the theater in New York and get Washington back to government.

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