What Woodrow Wrought

GEORGE F. WILL

May 28, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- Herman Rorschach, a Swiss psychiatrist, gauged patients' mental states by what they saw in inkblots. Ross Perot is America's Rorschach test. His rise reveals America's dangerous cult of presidential leadership.

Mr. Perot's popularity is fresh (and redundant) evidence that the public suffers from what psychiatrists call cognitive dissonance, an incongruity between attitudes and behavior. That often is brought on by the mental incoherence of professing, simultaneously and fervidly, incompatible beliefs. The public wants Mr. Perot to put an end to what the public's wants have produced -- the fiscal crisis caused by the public's demand for increased government and decreased taxes.

Freud, the vainest person who ever lived, believed that no one prior to him had ever understood anything, his insights being indispensable and sufficient for understanding everything. But Mr. Perot's political vanity is impressive.

He seems to think America has problems because it has not had the benefit of his willfulness; that compared to him, everyone in public life lacks courage or common sense; that he can assuage conflict and reconcile competing values by establishing, in his person, an electronic communion with ''the people'' through televised ''town meetings.'' (Never mind that town meetings serve a polity the size of a small New England town, not a continental nation, and that such meetings are for discussions and decisions, not gatherings to give a leader information.)

Mr. Perot's childlike fascination with gadgetry envisions government as a great telephone answering machine. The evident idea behind his electronic town meetings is that government is not properly responsive because the public's wishes are not well-measured. Actually, government today involves minute measurement of public appetites by servile politicians worshipful of those measurements. Such government reflects the decay of deliberative democracy into plebiscitary, answering-machine democracy.

The core principle of our republicanism is representation: The people do not decide things, they decide who will decide. Representatives are supposed to deliberate about the national interest, not just broker demands registered from various factions. But Mr. Perot's idea of the plebiscitary presidency reflects Woodrow Wilson's revolution against the Founders' idea deliberative democracy.

The Perot phenomenon is a consequence of Wilson's mystification of the presidency. Wilson's theory of presidential government makes the president the indispensable catalyst of mass opinion. He defined the primary business of government as the massing of opinion by a strong leader. More than a decade before he became president, Wilson the political scientist wrote:

''A nation is led by a man . . . in whose ears the voices of the nation . . . sound . . . like the united voices of a chorus, whose many meanings, spoken by melodious tongues, unite in his understanding in a single meaning and reveal to him a single vision, so that he can speak what no man else knows, the common meaning of the common voice.''

So a Wilsonian president knows ''what no man else knows'' and his mystical ''understanding'' and ''single vision'' supplants all constitutional arrangements and becomes the sole motor of government. A cult of leadership was in the air here and abroad in Wilson's day. Soon in Italy, and then Germany, the head of government was called simply Leader (Duce, Fuehrer).

In Wilson's 1913 inaugural he was at it again, having visions: ''At last a vision has been vouchsafed us of our life as a whole. . . . We know our task to be no mere task of politics. . . .'' ''Mere'' politics is not enough for a mystical Leader, whose business is the ecstatic transformation of the nation into a melodious chorus.

The Founders' idea of government centered on the deliberation of many representatives has been replaced by the idea of presidential ''interpretation'' (Wilson's words). The leader interprets what is in the hearts of the masses. What that means today is that the electronic town meeting will come to order.

When Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colo., recently announced his decision not to seek a second term, he listed many defects of American life, including George Bush, who, Mr. Wirth said, ''refuses to lead, who does not seem to have a sense of where he wants the country to go, and whose lack of direction in turn pervades the whole government.''

Senator Wirth, too, reflects Wilson's obsession with the presidential persona: If a president is inadequate, stasis pervades the govern- ment, and the country is threatened by entropy. Mr. Bush is a mediocre president, but most presidents have been mediocre. What is new is the notion that the nation's health is held hostage to the genius, or lack of genius, of the chief executive.

The public's pathetic determination to perceive genius in Ross Perot, that political inkblot, is a result of what Wilson wrought.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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