No one's singing 'Hail to the Chief'

Cynicism: Since the '60s, the American public has viewed presidents with an increasingly jaundiced eye.

June 20, 1999|By Richard Shenkman

PICTURE THIS. You and your family are huddled around a radio to hear the president of the United States speak about banking reform. Nobody smirks while he talks. Nobody dares to speak. The room is reverentially silent.

This is an unheard-of scene today, and not just because no one huddles around radios anymore. It is unheard-of because we Americans no longer feel toward presidents the way we once did. They're not heroes anymore.

When in 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his celebrated Fireside Chat on banking reform, Americans held presidents in awe. They named their children after them, as Americans of 100 years before had done.

To us, this kind of fealty to a leader is naive. But, in 1933 it was commonplace. The result was that when FDR told Americans it was safe to leave their money in banks, they did so, though just days before they had lined up by the millions to withdraw their funds.

What got me thinking about the changed relationship Americans have with their presidents was the publication of George Steph-anopoulos' memoirs. Whatever the merits of the book, whatever Stephanopoulos' motives in writing it, its existence is what is most significant.

In FDR's day, no presidential assistant would have thought of publishing a tell-all book while Roosevelt was in office. Today, the first thing a presidential adviser seems to think of doing as soon as he hands in his White House pass is to head to New York to sign a deal for a book that tells a lot of secrets. During the past two years, in addition to Stephanopoulos' book, we have had inside books written by Dick Morris and Robert Reich. We have even had a former FBI agent provide us with his story.

I have been heartened by the instinctively hostile reaction so many people have had to the Stephanopoulos book. People seem to understand that an assistant shouldn't rat on his president while the president is in office. It's unseemly. (The analogy isn't perfect, but in a way Stephanopoulos did to Clinton what Linda Tripp did to Monica Lewinsky, only Stephanopoulos -- so far as we know -- didn't use a tape recorder.)

But, much as I think Morris, Reich and Stephanopoulos deserve the public obloquy they received, they are not to blame for the changed relationship between Americans and their presidents. The relationship changed a long time ago, sometime between Lyndon Johnson's lies about Vietnam, Richard Nixon's lies about Watergate and Ronald Reagan's misstatements about Iran-contra. During those presidents' tenures, Americans learned to stop believing in their presidents.

It wasn't only the lies that changed the way Americans think about their chief executives; it was what the lies did to journalism. They turned reporters into cynics, the reporters questioning and investigating everything. The more the presidents lied, the more the reporters probed. Inevitably, this development led to even more revelations and more disillusionment.

We know more about our presidents than Americans of the past dreamed of knowing. And we respect them less. The act of knowing so much deprives the presidents of the mystery that leaders are said to need to govern effectively.

I know why we want to know more. It's because it seems the only way to keep presidents honest. But, the more we know, the less presidential our presidents become. And now that sex has become a legitimate subject of political coverage, we will know even more.

Six years ago, we were appalled when candidate Bill Clinton told us what kind of underwear he wore. That was in the innocent, good old days. Now we know what kind of sex he likes.

The president as hero? It's impossible today. No man can be a hero to his valet. And we, in effect, have become a nation of valets.

I wish there was a way to return to the way things were, when presidents retained their mystery and people believed in them. We have lost something. It's sad. But there's no going back. The past is past.

Historian Richard Shenkman is the author of "Presidential Ambition: How Presidents Gained Power and Got Things Done."

Pub Date: 06/20/99

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