Saturday, September 4, 2010

It's a Bird, It's a Plane!

Having stayed out of the water for quite a while, at least two months—meaning that I’ve watched SyFy, cartoons, or Light Classical Music instead of wading in the stream of news commentary—listening to a perfectly sensible pundits’ circle like Washington Week, presided over these days by Gwen Ifill, produced a brief, temporary shock—until my old habits kicked in and the whole thing sounded normal again. The program last night focused on the President’s televised speech about Iraq; thus the talk was all about the President and how now, having “turned the page” on Iraq, he was bending all of his attention onto the economy. And there was more along these lines.

I knew the answers in advance, but I looked at the U.S. Constitution anyway to see if what I’d heard the pundits say had any relationship to the founding document—fully expecting to be in quite another world. I was right, of course—because memory serves, as they say. The word “economy” does not appear in the Constitution. To be sure, that word did not mean what it does today; it was applied to the household; “political economy,” meaning political arrangements, existed at the time, but isn’t used in the document either. The closest word in the eighteenth century to describe the reality we now call an economy was “commonwealth”; it signified public welfare and the general good. That word does not appear in the Constitution either. And it makes sense that it did not. The founding document was practical and down-to-earth. The last thing our founders imagined was that the executive power, which they vested in the President (Art. II, Section 1), was of such a nature as to manage the vast range of private exchanges between individuals. The President’s duties, as spelled out in the referenced article and section, include being commander in chief of the Army and the Navy, the power to make treaties (limited by advice and consent), powers to appoint officials and judges (advice and consent at the highest levels only), the power to make recess appointments, the duty to make a State of the Union report, the power to convene Congress in cases of emergency; and he “shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers.” His general duties are stated in this oft repeated but totally ignored sentence: “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.” And that’s it.

The original president, carrying these duties, was also chosen by elected officials by means of a curious mixture of elections, appointments, and elections. Elected state legislatures appointed electors; electors so chosen would vote for presidential candidates; the candidate getting the majority of the electors’ votes became the president. The twelfth amendment changed all this, and with that change we set out on the road to the present. Elected officials were presumably smart enough to know that a man with the powers assigned to him, and these have never been changed, could not possibly be Superman. But the general voting public—and today that means anybody 18 or over—cannot be so presumed to think and—thus—that public will exercise its punitive powers on anyone who fails to be the Caped Crusader. Oh, look: It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman.

This development, all in the name of empowering the citizenry, has produced—by means of vast public communications which are not, themselves, under any kind of constraint—a vast fantasy of what is possible. We act as if this fantasy had real grounding in powers. It does not. But we are so very sophisticated that we can make all this sound deadly serious. Presidential powers as they are versus what they are perceived to be—and the change in how presidents are chosen—are the factual underpinnings for saying the sorts of things I said yesterday, namely that politics is more like weather than human endeavors. That probably sounded airy-fairy, but you can trace it backward to actual changes in the Constitution.

Washington Week used to be called Washington Week in Review. Remember? I said yesterday that in the Media the trend is toward contraction, greater speed, less reading, for Zeus’s sake. This is a tiny example of that.


  1. Thanks for the reminder of presidential powers and duties. Knowing your position on democracy and your preference for monarchy, I must say though that our actual Superman would never ever ever have been elected or appointed to the executive office without the popular vote and the democratic procedure. The "enlightened lords and gentlemen" who had the right to designate the president would never have chosen him! So, the idealistic, starry-eyed people chose Obama and he is indeed no Superman, which I'm glad to see you writing, but a large part of the presidential duty is symbolic and you can not deny he does that part very well.

  2. This too is nicely put.

    Yes, one gets the idea that the Sunday TV pundids (or the Friday night pundits in the case of Washington Week) are a small crowd just playing a little game together, who is the most clever, quickest, and has the most up-to-date tidbits to offer. Tthe players of this game have given in completely to group think, clever sounding but bearing no real connection to reality. Amazing.