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Bipedal Mammals

This morning I tuned in for a few minutes to Mike & Mike on ESPN radio.  Both Mikes agreed with each other on a proposition that I disagree with strongly, namely, that it is necessarily an honor – and a high honor, at that – to be invited to attend a White House function at which one meets the president of the executive branch of the national government in the United States.

Both Mikes allowed that they were highly honored to meet George W. Bush at the White House several years ago, and would be equally honored to meet Barack Obama at the White House today.  The thrust of the Mikes’ comments was that the honor inheres in meeting the president himself (or herself), regardless of who the president is and regardless of which policies that president proclaims and pushes.

I’m quite confident that the Mikes’ reverence for whoever is the current tenant of the White House is widely shared.  But what does such reverence – “for the office” (as it is often expressed) and, hence, disassociated from the particular bipedal mammal who holds the office at any particular time – signify if not a kind of veneration, a species of mystical awe, for the office (and, hence, for whatever bipedal mammal currently is) commonly called “President of the United States”?  Such oohing and aahhing suggests to me that the oohers and aahhers regard the office-holding mammal as being somehow greater than the rest of us – a greatness and magnificence achieved merely by that bipedal-mammal’s success at having duped or enchanted large numbers of people into voting him or her into that office.

Of course, no modern person consciously thinks of himself or herself as one who regards the bipedal mammal called “President” as possessing powers to work miracles.  But I suspect, quite strongly, that there is today at work, even in our modern world, the same unfortunate human instincts that for eons directed the human psyche to believe that Pharaohs and Kings and Queens and Maharajahs and Popes and other potentates somehow, to some degree, are superior to ordinary people in personal powers and wisdom and strength and courage and access to the divine.  (Why would it not be so?  We moderns are not at all very far removed, biological-time-wise, from those eras steeped in absurd mysticisms.)

During the summer of 1991, between my second and third years of law school, I worked for a prominent Georgetown law firm.  One Friday we young employees were treated to a lunchtime lecture by a guest speaker: Jack Valenti, the long-time head of the Motion Picture Association of America.  (Valenti, who died in 2007, was a master lobbyist.)  Valenti told my colleagues and me of how, in the days immediately after November 22, 1963, he saw his long-time friend, Lyndon Johnson, and called him “Mr. President.”  “Oh, call me Lyndon, Jack.  We’ve been friends too long,” LBJ replied.  Valenti very proudly related that he refused to address the President of the United States by his first name, for to do so would (as Valenti saw matters) degrade “the office.”

I wanted to throw up in my bottle of water as I listened to this worshipful story of “the President.”

Years later, in November 2002, I was invited to a White House reception as a guest of my newly minted Nobel-laureate colleague Vernon Smith.  (I was honored to be invited – but my honor came exclusively from being invited by a man whom I respect deeply, Vernon, and not at all from going to the White House to meet a politician.)  It was the first time that I ever met a president of the executive branch of the national government in the United States.  (I wound up meeting two, sort of, as Jimmy Carter was there also, he having won the Nobel Peace Prize that same year.)  I was thoroughly underwhelmed.  My impression of Bush was that he’s more charismatic in person than he is on television.  His charisma, however, still fell far short of making me feel any awe for the man or “the office” that he held.  Quite the contrary.  I couldn’t wait to leave; being near such people creeps me out.  They are, after all, merely bipedal mammals like the rest of us, yet who fancy themselves, and are fancied by their groupies, as being something more blessed.  (Actually, these particular bipedal mammals are not quite like the rest of us: they specialize, and succeed, in practicing in the dark arts of politics – arts that no truly decent bipedal mammal wishes to specialize in for long, and certainly not in ways that bring success.)