We threw the baby out with the bathwater when we kicked the monarchy out of America, and we ought to bring it back. To be clear, I do not mean the sort of hereditary tyrants who rule North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or the New York Yankees. Rather, I’d like for us to get one of those cute, ornamental throne warmers the Europeans trot around to cut ribbons at events.
In America we’ve combined power and reverence in the office of the presidency, but legal authority and veneration compliment each other about as well as Scotch and back pain medication. It’s safer to ingest them separately.
Just Look at Great Britain
Consider Britain: their head of state is a 90-year-old woman who wears flower pots on her head and appears to be married to a vampire. Their head of government is an entirely different woman named Theresa May. Britons hold Queen Elizabeth in high esteem, while simultaneously despising or barely tolerating their prime minister. Englishmen never really like their leaders, even when they voted for them; conservatives make fun of May and David Cameron, just as liberals kicked around Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.
Watch the prime minister’s questions sometime and you’ll see what I mean. They subject their head of government to half an hour of verbal pillorying by the opposition party, most of whom appear to be drunk. (Probably from Scotch and back pain medication.) There’s no pretense of politeness in Parliament, either. So far as I can tell, there are only two rules: 1) Keep sword fighting to a minimum 2) No clapping.
As long as those two orders are met, the British gleefully subject their leader to what is basically a Comedy Central roast with funny accents. Some Labour mossback with three teeth and a knighthood will ask the prime minister if she has ever diddled a horse, or yell at her about vegan-friendly currency, or posit some ridiculous math equation to make her perform long division out loud. As long as nobody claps afterwards, and the mossback remembers to slop a question mark at the end, everyone pretends it’s a serious governmental inquest and not merely legislative heckling. In short, it’s magnificent.
The American President Is too Pompous
Contrast that with the “The Crown,” a miniseries on Netflix. It surprised me to learn that British monarchs are, even today, briefed on sensitive information reserved for cabinet members. (Who diddled what horse, the tastiest vegan currency, and so forth.) This is tantamount to our government faxing Betty White the minutes of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Which, in the Trump administration, we’re probably already doing.) Giving sensitive information to an unelected blueblood is going too far in a democracy, of course, but it illustrates the peculiar regard which even now Britons reserve for their monarchs.
In America our head of government and head of state both problematically reside in the president. We can see that unholy union in full force during the spasm of pageantry which is the State of the Union address. President Jefferson rightly viewed the whole affair as pompous and monarchical, and sent Congress a letter instead.
Unfortunately the nimbus of deference surrounding the presidency has swelled with time. In 1956 a political scientist named Clinton Rossiter published “The American Presidency,” a tome sopping wet with sycophantic notions about the Oval Office. He described the commander-in-chief as “a combination of scoutmaster, Delphic oracle, hero of the silver screen, and father of the multitudes.”
Gag me. The president is the top bureaucrat, and there’s nothing more American than despising bureaucrats. The government is basically a giant Human Resources Department with tanks, and the president is in charge of it.
Let’s Make Kelsey Grammer King
Rather than venerating the executive branch, we should restrain its power through law, and restrain its ambitions through public ridicule. We could even knock out two birds with one stone if we let Al Franken run the president’s questions. He would make an entertaining roaster, and verbally sparring with POTUS would helpfully divert Franken’s attention away from more destructive pastimes like financial reform.
Liberals spent the last eight years slobbering over Barack Obama, whom they considered a modern philosopher king far above petty notions of constitutional restraint. That hero worship allowed him to topple a foreign government without congressional approval (something even George W. Bush didn’t do) and bypass obstructive Republican legislators through executive orders.
Now Democrats are seeing the Oval Office soiled by a carrot-colored reality television star who once tweeted, “Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again–just watch. He can do much better!” and by his own admission divorced his first wife in part because her implants felt wrong. Hopefully by the end of his term he will have disillusioned both Democrats and Republicans of their ongoing impulse to pair veneration with force.
I suggest we make Kelsey Grammer king. He’s American, yet has a regal bearing and flawless elocution. John Lithgow and Betty White would also make terrific decorative sovereigns. Mostly, though, I’d like us to get to the solemn business of shrinking the power of the White House and tearing down the cult of the presidency.