Cult of the Presidency

George Will decries the romanticization of the presidency.

Barack Obama recently said, “I believe in our ability to perfect this nation.” Clearly there is something the candidate of “change” will not change—the pattern of extravagant presidential rhetoric. Obama is trying to replace a president who vowed to “rid the world of evil”—and of tyranny, too.


If you can name it, presidents are responsible for it. The name for this is infantilization. “The average American,” said President Richard Nixon, “is just like the child in the family—you give him some responsibility and he is going to amount to something.” Vice President Al Gore said the government should act like “grandparents in the sense that grandparents perform a nurturing role.”

Such demented talk encourages presidential candidates to make delusional promises—energy independence in eight years (Mike Huckabee), “an excellent teacher in every classroom” and “every school an outstanding school” (John Edwards, who presumably knows how every school can stand out when all are outstanding), a “perfect” nation (see above) and so on.

The last presidential candidate to talk sense about the office was fictional. In an episode of NBC’s “The West Wing,” the Republican candidate, who was not the hero, was asked, “How many jobs will you create?” “None,” he replied, adding: “Entrepreneurs create jobs. Business creates jobs. The president’s job is to get out of the way.”

John McCain said something similar while campaigning in Michigan. He lost. We reward candidates who promise pie in the sky, not those who tell us that we’re responsible for our own lives.

Many more examples of the phenomenon at the link and, presumably, Gene Healy’s new book The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, which inspired Will’s column.

via Radley Balko

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Wayne says:

    I heard Bush say several times the same thing as your West Wing guy.

  2. G.A.Phillips says:

    Cult of donkanality, I remember that song, Living Color?

  3. Ted says:

    Here’s an important piece of advice: If it looks like it’s going to be McCain/Palin anyway (and that should be a “no brainer” for Team McCain), McCain should announce NOW or VERY SOON, rather than later towards the convention. There’s currently a growing chorus for Obama/Hillary (as VP) ticket (in fact the Dems are likely aware of the Palin phenomenon). If the GOP waits while movement for Hillary as VP grows — even worse until after it is solidified that Hillary will/could be VP pick — selecting Palin will be portrayed by Dems/liberal media more as a reaction by GOP selecting its own female (overshawdoing Palin’s own remarkable assets), rather than McCain taking the lead on this. Selecting Palin now or early (contrary to the punditocracy) will mean McCain will be seen as driving the course of this campaign overwhelmingly, and the DEMS will be seen as merely reacting. And, there’s absoultely no down-side to this because even if Hillary is a no-go as VP for Obama, the GOP gains by acting early. McCain the maverick. Palin the maverick. Do it now!

    There’s no reason, and actually substantial negative, in McCain waiting to see what the Dems do first insofar as his picking Palin as VP, because, no matter who Obama picks, Palin is by far (and I mean far) the best pick for McCain and the GOP, especially in this time of GOP woes. The GOP can be seen as the party of real ‘change’ (albeit I hate that mantra, change, change, bla bla), while not really having to change from GOP core conservative values, which Palin more than represents.

    In light of the current oil/energy situation, as well as the disaffected female Hillary voters situation, and growing focus on McCain’s age and health, Palin is more than perfect — now.

    (Perhaps Team McCain is already on to this.)

  4. G.A.Phillips says:

    I am a cult of..I am a cult of..donkanality…..

  5. Bithead says:

    In comparison to most of his product, of late, Will does seem to hit this one pretty well sqaure on.

    I do think that most Americans have lost all sanity on the degree of difference a particular party’s nominee will make… forgetting that to make the degree of difference required, beyond party bragging rights, one must actually be a leader. Reagan proved what can be done in that regard with a real leader in the position… and was followed by people who proved how little can be done with people in that position who are NOT leaders.

    Will knows the difference, at least, whatever else may be said of him.