L. Neil Smith's
Number 334, August 28, 2005

Taxation is the fuel of war

The Presidency and Other Dinosaurs
by Jonathan David Morris

Special to TLE

Let me tell you something. I've heard a lot of dumb questions in my time. Hell, I've asked a lot of dumb questions in my time. But, by far, the dumbest question I've heard all summer—and maybe all year—is this: Should George Bush meet with Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother of a slain Iraq war vet who's set up camp outside his Texas ranch? The answer to this question is, of course, yes. But whether he should or shouldn't isn't what makes this the dumbest question I've heard all summer. No, what makes it the dumbest question I've heard all summer is the idea that Americans think he has a choice. As far as I'm concerned, this issue has nothing to do with the Iraq war, nothing to do with Cindy Sheehan's relative leftness, and everything to do with the general ineffectiveness of the presidency. Simply put, it's an office which more and more looks to have outlived its use.

People are all sorts of enamored with the presidency. Oh, sure, we may say such and such a president "tarnished" the office with his free-wheelin' antics and zany, implausible wars. But we still respect it, don't we? Don't we still believe someone can bring "dignity" back to the White House at the end of the day? Of course we do. People like the presidency. People like to tell their kids that if they work hard enough—if they brush their teeth and hand in their homework—they, too, can grow up to be president. In America, being president is considered the pinnacle of personal success. It's much easier to admire the so-called leader of the free world—perfect as he seems, thanks to his spin machine—than one's own imperfect mom and dad.

The presidency wasn't always revered, though. Our first president, George Washington—you may have heard of him—didn't even want to be president. They practically had to trick him into doing it. (By "they," I of course mean his fellow Founding Fathers and Bugs Bunny dressed in traditional lady's attire.) Even after becoming president, Washington wasn't terribly interested in holding the office. After two terms, he set the most fantastic precedent in American political history by simply stepping down. Can you imagine that happening with any of the presidents we've had the last 25 years? If not for term limits, Reagan and Clinton might've ruled us indefinitely. And as for George Dubya, there's still no telling how many terms he'll serve.

Of course, Washington wasn't perfect. In the 1790s, he hopped on his horse and rode into Western Pennsylvania to collect—of all things—whiskey taxes. That's pretty extreme. To date, he remains the only president in American history to personally lead an army against American citizens. But just think about how things have changed since then. Is the office of the presidency even an office anymore? To me, it seems like a position of unmatched status and celebrity—like a star on Hollywood's walk of fame. Presidents travel around the country in armored limos and airplanes now, tucked safely away from their constituents. You can't access these people. Not unless you buy a $1000-a-plate dinner. Back in the day, an American citizen could walk into the White House uninvited, without even knocking. Today, the streets outside the White House are shut down for "security purposes." What I wouldn't give for a president willing to ride into battle to collect my taxes. If you think a policy's worth dying for, at least put your life on the line for it. God forbid these guys should rule with a personal touch.

I know what you're going to tell me. You're going to say, "Things have changed since Washington was president. You can't just walk into the White House. There really are security risks." Well, no kidding. But if things have changed since Washington was president, then maybe the presidency should change, too. Maybe the days of having a single, unassailable, savior-like president are over. Maybe it's time for multiple, regional presidents, who are under less threat of assassination because they piss fewer people off. Or maybe it's time for no presidents at all. I don't know what the answer is. But I do know this: We live in a country of nearly 300 million people now. We live in a technological era, where seemingly everything is personalized. That shouldn't stop when it comes to politics. Why does personalization count for something when it comes to watching OnDemand, but not when it comes to picking the people who invade foreign countries in our name?

Most Americans will never sit down and have dinner with a president. Few will spend quality time with their senators. And even fewer can name their own congressmen. Someone needs to change this. These people are in charge of a lot of important elements in our lives. They decide how much money needs to be taken from our paychecks. They decide where we should go to war. That's why I think George Bush should meet with Cindy Sheehan. Not because he owes it to her, but because she asked him to. I don't care if it's a slippery slope. He should meet with the mother of any dead hero who requests his presence. He should meet with their widows. And he should meet with their kids. In fact, he should meet with Americans who don't even know any soldiers. He should meet with you, and he should meet with me. He should spring from his bed at three o'clock in the morning to fix us some goddam hot chocolate. These politicians like to say they're "public servants." Well, let's see 'em serve us already.

Maybe I'm being unreasonable. To be quite honest, I don't even care. Washington, D.C., is so far away and meaningless in the everyday lives of most Americans that it's probably only by default that we go along with what they say anymore. As Thomas Jefferson wrote of King George: "He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures." Yep. That sounds about right.

I don't know what Cindy Sheehan's true political motives are, or whether those motives derive from some place real, but I'm glad she's decided to camp out in front of the president's house—whatever the case may be. It just goes to show you the chasm between our leaders and American citizens. There isn't a politician alive with the gumption to go door-to-door, saying, "Look, there's a war that I'd like you to fight halfway around the world for me." If they did that, they wouldn't be having such wars to begin with. Instead, they just hide behind their tinted windows, smiling for the crowds.

Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column for The Aquarian and other publications. He can be reached at jdm@readjdm.com.


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