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The Problem with Presidents and Heroes

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

Rebecca Burgess

February 12, 2016 | AEIdeas

thFebruary is a month of confusing holidays. On the 22nd, Americans traditionally commemorate the birth of George Washington, Revolutionary War general and the United States’ first president. On the 12th, they remember the birth of the Civil War commander-in-chief and sixteenth chief executive Abraham Lincoln. Since 1968, every third Monday of the month — this year, the 15th — is popularly celebrated as Presidents’ Day.

While it’s disconcerting that we don’t honor these two extraordinary presidents separately, we remain determined to honor the distinctiveness of at least two, if not forty-four, individual citizens. Not for their Common Man touch, but for rising well above the ordinary — elite even among those few officials we vote to lead us. For a country dedicated to the proposition that all are created equally free, and whose sovereignty is vested in the will of “we the people,” this seems a stunning bit of personality disorder.

It’s also a good civic custom.

“President” is an odd word. It’s an especially odd title for the chief public official of the American republic. It invokes the sense of “one among equals,” of a non-threatening figure overseeing rather than controlling power and related affairs. It lends elements of seriousness and gravitas, but adds distance between the ordering of a nation and the domination we associate with kings or tyrants of old. But its Latin roots harken back to the military garrison, and to the guard that physically “sits before” and watches that which is vulnerable.

The president swears an oath  to stand guard over the Constitution (“to preserve, protect and defend”) and to “faithfully execute the Office of the President.” As a political title, “executive” is an odd word too. It masks the political height of the office holder and the perception of his power. In that the executive carries something out, he or she is subordinate to the will of another. That lends a touch of weakness to the office. There’s a second meaning to the word, however, that adds an almost terrifying strength to it — the executive executes, in the old fashioned sense of capital punishment. That signals a robust independence of will and action.

As the oath suggests, the chief executive has a duty, entirely unique to him under the Constitution, not only to carry out his office faithfully but to be especially mindful of sustaining the constitutional order.  And like the meaning of “executive,” the oath has some ambiguity at its heart — suggesting the president must care to both preserve the greater rule of law that the Constitution embodies but also defend it from enemies abroad and from within. The great question for constitutional scholars is: Are there times when preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution is in tension with the normal “faithful execution” of his office, including the faithful execution of the laws? As Lincoln himself stated to Congress:

Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself… go to pieces, lest that one be violated? Even in such a case would not the official oath be broken if the Government should be overthrown, when it was believed that disregarding the single law would tend to preserve it?

On the national scale, that’s an immensely tricky balance to be maintained. It has no scientific formula for inevitable success. Not all presidents get it right.

Precisely because of the stakes involved in wielding that type of power, the presidential election stands among our greatest civic rituals. For an individual to want to be at the crux of so much responsibility requires an extraordinary amount of ambition. Showing “naked ambition,” however, does not sit well with a democratic people. More importantly, ambition alone isn’t sufficient for exercising that power well. It requires a certain modesty. It requires a president to understand and to act as a citizen-official, chosen by and responsible to his peers, to accomplish the duties of that office. It requires restraint.

George Washington, our first president, did this so well that we call him the “father of our country.” At multiple points in his career, he gave up power willingly. He even carefully moderated appearances of power — unprecedented in modern times among generals and political leaders. Yet he, among other great citizen-statesmen of the American republic, is no longer really a hero to us. Neither Washington nor Lincoln today is “first in the hearts of his countrymen” in the sense that we invoke them as models of action, or look to them with admiration and respect for who they were and what they did.

We have grown uncomfortable with heroes of that sort. For decades now, an immense amount of energy has gone into debunking the “myths” and reversing “indoctrination” about America’s greatest statesmen-citizens and unique governing principles. And yet there is this strange dichotomy in that, as our reverence for statesmen has waned, we have begun referring to our soldiers, and sometimes other public service members, as simply “our heroes.”  Although fewer and fewer Americans have a personal connection to someone in uniform, we recognize that such service demonstrates long-term commitment to a difficult task and requires personal fortitude and physical, even moral, courage.

What we naturally find admirable in our peers is a moral constancy, a dedication to principle, especially in the face of danger. The monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln light the way to our broad conception of the American heroic: the steadfast obelisk, the standing thinker, and the seated judge are representative of the power of ideas, rather than the domination of the sword. Action is hardly ignored — we find it in the war memorials. But what we as a nation have traditionally admired is profound moral conviction tied to ability and perseverance. These are not just presidential characteristics devoutly to be wished for; when on a grand scale, they are heroic.

Perhaps then calling our soldiers “heroes” today is the “folk” recognition of what in our public discourse and academic halls we poo-poo as non-existent or simply dangerous. We want our presidents to be presidential; we actually do believe in the possibility (and need for) great or heroic statesmen. Constancy or conviction of one’s ideas isn’t enough to meet that standard, however, when it comes to the everyday practicalities of contemporary presidents. Conviction can agilely substitute for bullheadishness and demagoguery — a treacherous situation. The challenge to contemporary presidents or presidential candidates is to show how strong convictions remain reconcilable with prudence and the democratic process, so that when chief executive, he or she will not be an imperial, tyrannical executive but a republican one.

This is harder than it looks in 2016. For any presidential candidate, the need to address real and perceived abuses of executive power is palpable.  Yet no new president will want to be responsible for appearing to weaken his office, from an institutional or a party perspective. Additionally, he or she will not escape the daily commentariat assigning blame to and demanding action from the Executive for anything amiss within the bureaucracy, whether entirely independent from him or not. To address the crisis, the new president will flex and stretch further executive power.

The escalation of this Frank Underwoodization of government in general and the presidency in particular seems inevitable. But a study of our great statesmen-presidents of old shows with what tools they confronted the immense difficulties of their day and what was the measure of their success. That they were successful is born out by the endurance of the American project, one feature of which is the once every four-year ritual of electing a president. If that does not inspire confidence about the health of our democratic society, the continued observance of Washington’s Birthday at least ought to encourage us that it is not yet so fragile as the snow crusts of February.

Rebecca Burgess is program manager of the Program on American Citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute.

AEI