Crowning Presidents as Royal Celebrities

WILLIAM PFAFF

January 25, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--An American presidential inauguration is a coronation for a season. The president is king for four years, eight if he is lucky -- which most recent presidents have not been. The complication of the presidential office has become something close to contradiction, and the crowning of the president has made regicide a republican necessity. Mr. Reagan is the only modern president who has not left office symbolically slain by the people.

Truman was the last holder of the office who conducted himself in the old republican way, as an ordinary mortal, rather than as an anointed one. Eisenhower, as a general, was a man of ranks and deference, but still was in the tradition of Washington, who refused the crown many 18th Century Americans wanted him to assume. Washington's officers still insisted on forming the hereditary Order of the Cincinnati, which was meant to be the future aristocracy. Thomas Jefferson was convinced that his own election in 1801 had been a contest between ''the advocates of republican, and those of kingly government.''

The men who became presidents after Eisenhower were not themselves responsible for how the office changed, although both Kennedy and Richard Nixon were accomplices in the change. It was the mediatizing of American politics and the irresistible accumulation of ceremony around the Cold War presidency that elevated the president to the place he now occupies. The ceremony increased despite the fact that the power of the president decreased, in every area except the power to make war.

The accumulation of ceremony made the White House more like a court, while the protection of the president, and symbolically, of the nation's nuclear potency, has surrounded him with widening (and ego-building) rings of security guards. The result of this has been more and more to isolate him from the public. He now deals with the people through the mediation of television, an apparent gain in intimacy, but an actual loss of the real intimacy that existed when Truman played poker with that era's handful of White House reporters.

This isolation was one reason Mr. Bush lost the election in November. He had spent too long within his bubble of security and ceremony. It is an isolation Bill Clinton wants to avoid, and is why he has given so popular and populist an inauguration party.

Mr. Clinton is not likely, however, to be able to escape this monarchizing -- if we can call it that -- of the presidency, the turning of the president and his family into celebrities, and what is worse, into show-business celebrities. The Clinton inauguration was all show-business. The president should reflect what happened in Britain when the royal family became celebrities.

Being a monarch is dangerous. The fundamental function of the monarch is sacerdotal. The king or queen is God's intermediary in dealing with a given people. That is what dynastic rule and the divine right of kings was all about. It is why Queen Elizabeth was anointed with sacramental oils at her coronation, and was made the head of the Church of England.

Today, while what once was taken to be the reality of this sacerdotal role now is accepted as symbolism, the symbolism itself remains extremely powerful. Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, has probably sacrificed his succession to Britain's crown, and may even have destroyed the monarchy itself in Britain, because his marital difficulties and the publication of a coarse sexual conversation have robbed him of this sacramental potentiality, this potential priesthood.

No one thinks Charles worse than some of his predecessors, but the mediatizing of the monarchy -- and the British royal family's making of themselves into celebrities -- have eliminated that distance between monarch and people which in the past made the king's sins private.

The day following Mr. Clinton's inauguration was, coincidentally, 200th anniversary of the execution of King Louis XVI, beheaded in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, in front of what now is the Hotel Crillon. Why was he killed, in what virtually all agree was a judicial murder? He was an inoffensive man and a relatively enlightened monarch. He had to be killed because to create a republic the sacramental connection of people to God had to be broken, repudiated, by an act of violence. So long as the king lived the sacrament of kingship existed.

This is why I say that being a monarch is dangerous. When the American president was, as the old usage had it, the first ''magistrate'' -- a civil official -- he was safe. He could leave office a success or a failure. No one wanted his blood. This is not the case today. Mr. Clinton clearly grasps something of this, and it is why he wants to avoid isolation and break down the new barriers between himself and the people.

It is possible, however, that this is exactly the wrong way to go. It may be that the only possible solution is to reduce the ceremony and celebrity, but increase the distance. Instead of trying to touch the ordinary man, the president should do his best to remain an ordinary man himself, one simply carrying out, for a term, the civil duties of the first magistracy.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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