When I was a little girl during FDR's time, I remember people in my family talking in hushed, reverent tones about the President of the United States -- as if he were someone so special you mustn't use your normal, everyday voice. I grew up thinking there was no one in our beloved country who could top the President when it came to being all-wise and all-caring. I believed that there was something other-worldly, even God-like about Presidents, and I felt safe.
I came of age in the 1950s, in the midst of the McCarthy witch hunts, and all childish notions about the government as citizen protector flew right off the newborn TV screen and into the wild blue yonder. The Army-McCarthy hearings were televised live, and for the first time in my life I knew real, hair-raising fear. I understood then the latent, potentially evil power of the government and it terrified me. Eisenhower was president, and, while my concern over his seeming disengagement from the whole vile circus nearly got the best of me, it didn't deter me from my original thoughts about the presidency in general.
There is the president and then there is the presidency. One is fleeting, the other is our most cherished institution.
I've worked my way through many presidents since then and even the worst of them haven't been able to move me away from that belief. We have certain built-in expectations of our presidents, tempered always with the recognition that they're only human. They will not always do our bidding. They will often make mistakes. They will sometimes fail in the most spectacular fashion. But the underlying hope is that when they wake up every morning in the White House -- the house on loan to them by the people -- they'll remember who they're supposed to be and resolve at the very least to do no lasting harm.
But what I'm seeing now is that venerable institution moving further and further away from any kind of special honor and more and more into celebrity/CEO status. It is no longer cherished, no longer looked on as both a rare privilege and a breathtaking responsibility. For proof, take a hard look at the Republican Party's current lineup of potential presidential nominees. Unless something major happens, the president's opponent will be one of these frontrunners: Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, or Michelle Bachmann.
Look deeper: There is not a serious candidate among them. They make it understood that they want to be known as presidential without the annoying duties historically relegated to the presidency. "Duties" is the one word in the job description that gives them the most grief, and the one they're each aiming to adjust once they're in office. What I'm getting from their debate discussions is that they're falling all over themselves to see who can diminish the office of the presidency the fastest. (The possible exception might be Mitt Romney, but he's keeping mum, waiting to see which way the wind will blow.)
I don't know. If one cared, one might want to pass along to them that this is not your ordinary CEO gig. Yes, there may be some question about whether the President of the United States is still looked on as the leader of the free world, but there's no argument that he (and someday, she) is the sole keeper of the Executive branch of our government. When you have a country the size of ours (over 300 million people spread out over almost four million square miles) mired in unnatural disasters of epic proportions, the last thing any serious candidate for the highest government office in the land should be advocating is an end to government interference. Yet in the course of some 16 debates so far, that seems to be the recurrent theme. It's as if, in all the grand hoopla, they've forgotten just which job they've applied for.
If they talk at all about joblessness, homelessness, uncovered illnesses, or any other deliberate misery cast upon certain segments of the 99%, it's to place the blame for such predicaments squarely on either the existing governmental busybodies or on the millions of affected people who have the gall to think they're the victims here. Their fix is to turn the country over to God and the private sector -- neither of which, it should be pointed out, the president will have any control over if their dearest wishes come true.
Their goal, the destruction of a central government, is one that no president before them would have considered, even in the wildest wanderings of their most vivid imaginations. It's not the kind of remedy past seekers of the office were inclined to entertain.
On the other hand, it's exactly the kind of thing we came to expect from someone like Herman Cain, a guy with way too much money and ego, a guy who only just wanted to sell his book and thought the way to do it would be to run for, Holy Pokemon! President! Of the United States!
But okay, this did not get past me: Through no great feat of his own, and despite gaffes that might suggest "astonishingly bad comedian" rather than "honorable POTUS", Cain rose to the top of the GOP nominees list and stayed there for a frightfully long time before toppling. That means there are a whole lot of people out there who just aren't getting what I'm saying here.
That is just painful.