The State of the Union has not always been a grotesque spectacle. George Washington delivered his briefing in person, but he was dealing with a self-respecting Congress that understood itself to be his equal in government. When he wanted the Senate’s advice and consent for an Indian treaty, he visited the chamber personally to seek it — and was so put off by the questioning and debate to which he was subjected that he vowed never to put himself through that again. It was an excellent idea. Thomas Jefferson, ever watchful against monarchical pretensions in the federal apparatus, discontinued the practice of delivering the State of the Union in person before Congress, instead submitting a written report. For a blessed century, Jefferson’s example was followed, and, despite civil war and the occasional financial panic, the nation thrived without an ersatz Caesar to rule over it…
The State of the Union is only one example of the deepening, terrifying cult of the state that has taken root here. Many heads of state — and some royals, for that matter — fly on commercial aircraft. Presidents of the Swiss federation and members of the federal council receive . . . an unlimited train pass. They have occasional access to a Cessna maintained by the air force, but are known to use mass transit — just like the people they are elected to represent. An American president stages a Roman triumph every time he heads out for a round of golf. The president’s household costs well more than $1 billion annually to operate. The president’s visage is more ubiquitous than was Vladimir Lenin’s in his prime, his reach Alexandrian, his sense of immortality (they call it “legacy”) pharaonic. Washington has become a deeply weird and alien place, a Renaissance court with armored sedans and hundred-million-dollar paydays.
It’s expensive maintaining an imperial class, but money isn’t really the object here, and neither is the current occupant of the White House, unlikeable as he is. Whether it’s Barack Obama or some subsequent pathological megalomaniac, Republican or Democrat, the increasingly ceremonial and quasi-religious aspect of the presidency is unseemly. It is profane. It is unbecoming of us as a people, and it has transformed the presidency into an office that can be truly attractive only to men who are unfit to hold it.
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