The problem with the Presidency isn’t the occupant, but the job

I assiduously avoid politics. It’s an old statehouse reporter’s habit of trying to walk the straight and narrow between two parties in a state once known as the People’s Republic of Masssachusetts where politics is our fifth professional sport. It also is a topic I learned to dodge while tending bar in Cambridge and Boston’s Back Bay along with religion and other matters of opinion that could impact the tip jar. I’ve never been a registered member of any political party and have voted a mixed ticket from 1976 when I turned eighteen and could vote for the first time. But I do vote and I am a citizen and I think if anything good comes from the present calamity of viruses, fake news, and strident lunacy, it is a rethinking of the Presidency.

Yesterday I quoted one of my favorite historians — Barbara W. Tuchman — in a post about about the current crisis, trying to make the point with her words that plagues are different from wars because they range far and wide from any one battlefield to threaten us, one and all. And that any difference of opinion and lack of unity during a crisis — or at any other time — is perfectly normal and in fact better than numb consensus.

Barbara Tuchman, via Wikipedia

Her book, Practicing History, is a collection of articles and lectures she gave over the years on topics ranging from the joys of discovery through historical research (she famously kept her notes on 3×5 index cards and wrote at the kitchen table when her children were in bed) to a very interesting question:

Should we abolish the presidency?

Written for the New York Times in 1973 during the Watergate years, Tuchman tendered a proposal which I have never heard before. She began by asserting the job was broken and had too much power in relation to the judicial and legislative branches.

“Expansion of the Presidency in the twentieth century has dangerously altered the careful tripartite balance of governing powers established by the Constitution. The office has become too complex and its reach too extended to be trusted to the fallible judgment of any one individual. In today’s world no one man is adequate for the reliable disposal of power that can affect the lives of millions—which may be one reason lately for the notable non-emergence of great men.”

Evidently Tuchman had proposed doing away with the single-person office of the President and replacing it with a “5-man Cabinet” in 1968. She revived the idea five years later when Nixon was hunkered down in the Oval Office facing impeachment. It’s a bold redefinition of the entire concept that every organization needs a single leader. Tuchman’s vision of the Executive Branch is one that spreads the job description over six experts aligned around six broad cabinet specialties:

“OWING TO THE STEADY ACCRETION of power in the executive over the last forty years, the institution of the Presidency is not now functioning as the Constitution intended, and this malfunction has become perilous to the state. What needs to be abolished, or fundamentally modified, I believe, is not the executive power as such but the executive power as exercised by a single individual.

“We could substitute true Cabinet government by a directorate of six, to be nominated as a slate by each party and elected as a slate for a single six-year term with a rotating chairman, each to serve for a year as in the Swiss system. The Chairman’s vote would carry the weight of two to avoid a tie.”

  • Foreign (including military and CIA)
  • Financial (including treasury, taxes, budget and tariffs)
  • Judicial
  • Business/Trade (including commerce, transportation and agriculture)
  • Physical Resources (Interior, parks, environmental)
  • Human Affairs (HEW, Labor, cultural)

Further on, in diagnosing the factors that have over-weighted the Executive Branch, she presciently predicts the behavior of the current occupant of the office and his obsession with his ratings:

“The … reason, stemming perhaps from the age of television, is the growing tendency of the Chief Executive to form policy as a reflection of his personality and ego needs. Because his image can be projected before fifty or sixty or a hundred million people, the image takes over; it becomes an obsession. He must appear firm, he must appear dominant, he must never on any account appear “soft,” and by some magic transformation which he has come to believe in, he must make history’s list of “great” Presidents.”

She concludes by correctly pointing out the American people’s fondness for a supreme leader. The founding fathers were well aware of this and in some sense designed the job of President to fulfill a very real need in the new nation to continue having a King-figure at the helm. Sadly, her point that there is an “…American craving for a father-image or hero or superstar” is what (along with the sclerotic rate of change to the Constitution) has reduced us to politics by star-appeal and ratings.

Her solution to our need to have the buck stop somewhere? Or the cultural appetite for the pomp and trappings of the White House?

“The only solution I can see to that problem would be to install a dynastic family in the White House for ceremonial purposes, or focus the craving entirely upon the entertainment world, or else to grow up.”

Grow up. Damn right. I’m all for leadership by committee (except on a ship where a competent tyrant is needed).

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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