That Man in the White House

By Wright, Esmond | Contemporary Review, October 1996 | Go to article overview

That Man in the White House


Wright, Esmond, Contemporary Review


It is not the careful restraint of the language of the American Constitution of 1787 but the constant drumbeat of occurring and recurring daily crises that have made the office of the President so important. It was not planned so, two centuries ago, nor intended. Power, it was assumed, would stay where it then belonged: with local squires, plantation owners, men of vast domains or men who wielded money who might on occasion visit the federal capital, wherever it was, to confer, and to fix things when they were required. All men, they held, or at least proclaimed, are 'created equal' - though their history has gone to prove how untrue that adage is. And that history has, willingly or not, been that of the men who, in leading the nation, have reached a greatness peculiarly their own. The founding fathers did not want there to be a king, or even a primus inter pares, even if it was to be one of themselves. Recurrent crises altered that, and then the press and now obtrusive and intrusive television cameras, with world-wide audiences, altered all that.

The office, and whoever occupies it, has grown by what it fed on, and keeps on growing. Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of mountain tops, chose four who were immortal to crown his monument on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. But those who named the mountain range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire were simple men - and more accurate: they chose them in straightforward chronological fashion: Mount Washington, 6288 feet, Mount Adams, 5798 feet, Mount Jefferson, 5715 feet and so on. For each occupant of the White House, whatever his varied talents, has been in his lifetime the most important man in the country, who often holds for all his contemporaries the power of life and death, of prosperity or depression, of joy or tragedy. And he has always been a subject for gossip, rumour and speculation - even in the beginning.

Of the Presidents, the Scotch-Irish have almost outnumbered those of English stock (Jackson, Polk, Arthur, McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, and Nixon), not to mention the Scots (Monroe, Buchanan and Hayes) and the Irish (Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton). Yet it remains true that, though the office of President was modelled on the personality, dignity and restraint of George Washington himself, the holder of the office was intended to be only a chairman or chief magistrate, which at the beginning was to be his title.

It was the zest and skill of Washington's lieutenant and Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, that provided 'the executive energy' - as he called it - to the first administration. Ever since, if the President himself does not provide that executive energy, he must find it elsewhere, or find it in one of his lieutenants. Moreover, and particularly after Andrew Jackson's popularising of the office, and the activities of his newspaper-owning brains trust, the President is the man for whom all the people can, if they wish, vote (and in today's world watch and listen to), who symbolizes and speaks for what is, essentially, a new form of government: a despot elected by acclamation. The President is the first citizen of the republic, and he is chosen - via primaries, radio and television challenges, debates, caucuses and conventions - by the most unique, complex and long-drawn-out process of selection and election ever devised by man. It was not so planned in 1787, but again it grew as the years passed and grew by what it fed on. It is an office of opportunity, of risk and of tragedy. Only four (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy) of the 41 have been assassinated, but attempts were made to kill Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Only one has been impeached, Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor, and the Senate acquitted him on 16 May 1868 by a vote of 35 to 19, one vote less than the necessary two-thirds. …

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