The Noble Office of the American Presidency

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Above: George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale (1776)

February is certainly our most presidential month in these United States, featuring, as it does (in reverse chronological order) the birthdays of Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan. Moreover, this is 2024, yet another election year. Usually, the question of who will run on one side is settled, if he is an incumbent president, and the identity of the challenger remains in doubt. This year it is the other way around. Trump appears to be the locked-in Republican candidate, and one may wonder if the senile Joe Biden will make it as far as November. Each side has utter contempt for the other; but many on both sides have great doubts (to say the least) about their own candidate. Toxic as this moment may be, it has been a long time since all Americans could thrill to the strains of Hail to the Chief and the accompanying stentorian announcement, “the President of the United States, and Mrs. X!” Whether one traces this decline to Clinton’s Oval Office adulteries or the taped revelations of Nixon’s potty mouth, it is a sad decline for an office once invested in the minds of its people with a semi-priestly role.

As a Boy Scout, I was proud that the sitting president was honorary president of the BSA; all former presidents were honorary vice presidents. Presidential inaugurations and funerals even now are celebrated with an affecting pomp. At the White House, the Old Guard and the President’s Own Marine Band provide a level of ceremony commensurate with the exalted status of a Head of State. There the president must receive letters of accreditation from foreign ambassadors, receive exalted visitors in the East Room, and host State Dinners for foreign rulers. He also has a quasi-religious role; although the “Church of the Presidents,” St. John’s Lafayette Square is Episcopalian, is the National Cathedral, most presidents make an annual pilgrimage to the Red Mass at St. Matthew’s Catholic Cathedral in company with the Supreme Court. At Arlington National Cemetery the president still presides over rites commemorating the honoured dead of our wars. He signs proclamations declaring holidays large and small, famous and obscure: whether it be Christmas or Loyalty Day or Irish American Month, His Excellency will “call upon all the people of the United States to observe this day [or week or month] with appropriate ceremonies and activities,” in witness whereof, he thereunto sets his hand that day of that month, in whatever year of our Lord it happens to be, and of the Independence of the United States of America it is.

Every president has one or more houses. Museums, and/or libraries dedicated to him – each of which is a centre of his cultus. The sitting president always sponsors a wreath sent to each of his predecessors’ graves on their respective birthdays, presentation of which is the centrepiece of a more or less elaborate ceremony honouring the deceased chief executive. In each of these places, the given president is seen as a paragon of wisdom and virtue.

Of course, although often opposed to each other, each president does have his own cadre of supporters drawn to his memory. Surely, as Mount Rushmore reflects, in Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, despite their many differences (especially between the first two) most Americans for the larger part of our history found heroes they could venerate equally: Washington, first of presidents, “first in war, first in piece, first in the hearts of his countrymen;” Jefferson, author of the declaration of independence, purchaser of Louisiana, and inventor; Lincoln, saviour of the Union and emancipator of the slaves; and  Roosevelt, lover of conservation whose vigour was popularly seen as reflecting that of the country as a whole.

Indeed, there was a time when popular presidential historiography tried to blur the differences between them, and make out that they all – or at least the above-named and Adams, Madison, and Monroe, plus, perhaps, Andrew Jackson – had all contributed their own unique bit to creating the glorious republic in which we dwelt. Now, deep as political divisions had been before the Civil War, and even though dark disputes would rush across the country, the major difference in the two parties was a question of names, personnel, and beneficiaries. Although every generation saw the notion of “the common good” erode ever further, it was concealed by both the American civil religion and the shared moral consensus upon which that religion rested. 

Although Woodrow Wilson disturbed that semi-unanimity, it was not until the reign of Franklin Roosevelt that truly sharp ideological differences began to emerge, between the New Dealers and Warhawks on one side, and opponents of Socialism and intervention on the other. But the victory in World War II and shared opposition to Communism restored temporarily a feeling of national unity well symbolised by President Eisenhower. It has been well said that Ike saw himself as “a civil pastor to all Americans who believed in God” – a vast majority in those days. Having been born the day Kennedy was elected, this writer has spent his life watching that unanimity unravel.

To be sure, although JFK had a very hard time getting his legislation through Congress, with their youth and apparent elegance he and his lovely wife were fun to watch. In those innocent days, few outside their immediate circle knew that the president had extended his promise to keep his religion out of his public life to his private life as well. His murder created for a while the cult of “our martyred president,” which at the time was compared with that of Abraham Lincoln. Certainly, in the Catholic schools of my childhood, his picture was there with Washington and Lincoln.

As the 1960s progressed, the moral consensus earlier referred to shattered. The two parties became ever more ostensibly ideological. More and ever more did these United States become two separate nations, divided not by geography but world-view. The ugly reality that Americans to a great degree had often evaded – that the president is a politician who must often place the good of his party over the good of the nation – became ever more inescapable as the division bit ever deeper into national life, and as the generation that fought World War II diminished in size and influence. President Nixon’s Watergate debacle shook a great deal of confidence in the institution; President Carter’s arrant silliness in office did not help.

Then along came Reagan. For a short eight years the “Reagan Revolution” appeared to have set back some of the 1960s madness. It was a lovely time to be sure; but like a comet, it came and went. Bush Senior mismanaged the end of the Cold War, with results we are still feeling. Then came the unspeakable Bill Clinton, America’s best-loved adulterer and perjurer, who may well be said to have radicalised his opponents. So annoying was he, that Bush Junior was a tremendous relief. Under his watch, of course, were 9/11 and the beginning of the Forever War; while he fought the foe abroad, the Left prepared for ever greater victories in the moral and social spheres. Obama took advantage of displeasure with his predecessor’s policies to further erode traditional mores in the country – and with the force of government.

Endless shrieking on the part of the media accompanied the presidency of Donald Trump; the hot, hot, summer of burning love of 2020 with its accompanying Floyd riots and plunder signalled the triumph of Wokery in all sorts of places. Regardless of whether or not the election of 2020 was stolen, it paved the way for a president whose mental faculties appear ever weaker, with a vice president who seems not far behind, albeit without being able to attribute her state to senility or dementia. Regardless of who emerges victorious from this year’s electoral outing, it is highly unlikely it will result in a healing of the national division, nor any kind of thought for the common good.

Now, as mentioned, this state of affairs has always been with us, in a sense, but there were other factors that allayed its toxicity. Seeing past presidents and their immediate predecessors appear together at the inauguration, top-hatted and in elegant morning suits gave the impression that both served a higher good than their own parties. However untrue that might have been in particular cases, it was true enough. But now, Wokery has nailed the last nail in the coffin of American commonality, no matter how vestigial it was. Can it be regained? Are there alternatives?   

Of course, our cousins in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain, from whose system ours originally sprang, might be looked at in comparison – the more so since the founding fathers based the presidency on their ideas of how the British Monarchy from which they had broken away worked. Of course, the truth was that this action in itself began the completion of a process underway since 1688 or even 1642 – the reduction of the King to a mere figurehead. As Eric Nelson put it, when the revolution ended and our constitution was composed and enacted, “on one side of the water there would be a Monarchy without a King, and on the other, a King without a Monarchy.” In 1931, the Statute of Westminster made Canada and the other Dominions independent of the British Government; henceforth, the Monarch’s Kingship in each of his Commonwealth Realms would be separate from all of the others. So it was that in World War II George VI, as King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Emperor of India was at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan. But as King of the Irish Free State, he was neutral; he signed the accreditation letters of his Irish envoys to the Axis powers, and their ambassadors to Ireland were accredited to him. This situation remains to-day in those Commonwealth countries which retain Charles III as their King, in preference to some banana republic arrangement.

For a very long time, despite his powerlessness, the Monarch represented an apolitical focus of loyalty, above the Prime Minister and government. The army, judiciary, and bureaucracy swore allegiance to His Majesty, and not to the cabinet of the day. This provided an enormous amount of stability, for a longtime. Unfortunately, even as the 1960s saw the breaking of national unity in our country, they ushered in republicanism in Britain and the Commonwealth. Even as appeals to American traditions and institutions become the province of only one of the two factions, so too with outright support of the Monarchy, from Wellington and Canberra to Ottawa and London. The banshees of Wokery shriek at least as loudly in those nations as they do in ours. Of course, as the popular support for the King in the wake of his mother’s death and the interest in the ceremonies around his accession and coronation show, all the best efforts of media, academia, and bureaucracy have failed to eliminate loyalty from a majority of Charles’ subjects. It is also to be noted that only once has a popular referendum been allowed by politicians in a Commonwealth country whose politicians wanted a full republic and thus total control for themselves – Australia in 1999. It was soundly defeated. 

Interesting as all that is, however, if somehow the King and/or his son manage to regain the complete loyalty of the vast majority of their subjects, and so assuage the disunity the children of the 60s have inflicted upon their realms, it does little good for these United States. There is a world of difference between a crowned and anointed King, whose hereditary position is determined by providence, and an elected president, who in our time commands only the loyalty of those who vote for him. It is hard to see how something other than civil unrest followed by a strongman can be avoided, as things stand.

But why should they stand this way? Back in 1845, Orestes Brownson wrote a startling essay: “Catholicity Necessary to Sustain Popular Liberty.” Therein he wrote,

The thesis we propose to maintain is, therefore, that without the Roman Catholic religion it is impossible to preserve a democratic government, and secure its free, orderly, and wholesome action. Infidelity, Protestantism, heathenism may institute a democracy, but only Catholicity can sustain it.

While our Catholic American predecessors did not feel it worthwhile to evangelise, and the aforementioned moral consensus and American civic religion provided an alternative animating principle for a very long time, the former might be almost called treasonous, while the latter point simply delayed rather than negated Brownson’s thesis, which in our time has come true. Delayed by historical events – even as Belloc’s idea of the Servile State was delayed by the World Wars and the Cold War – the chickens Brownson pointed out have at last come home to roost. It is up to our generation of Catholics in this country – despite a lack of hierarchical leadership at the moment – to try to evangelise our neighbours. It is an essential task, both for their salvation as individuals, and for that of the country as a whole. It may seem impossible at the moment – let us remember, however 12 Apostles and 70 Disciples tackled a similar task, starting in 33 AD; 347 years later, the Edict of Thessalonica made Catholicism the religion of the Empire, and baptism the method of entering both the Church and Roman citizenship.  If we do our part now, who knows what graces and glories the future – remote or near – may hold.

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