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Your Most Benign Highness

Updated: Oct 24, 2019

Nixon and Elvis
Nixon and Elvis 1970 Photo by Pixabay

Yes we have no King

When George Washington was elected president in 1789, there arose the issue of how he should be addressed. Some suggested "Your Excellency", or "Your Highness". Eventually it was decided as "Mr. President", which is the title still used today.

Where have you gone...Millard Fillmore

However, titles aside, what I find interesting is the pervasive adulation of recent presidents more as personalities, not as elected office holders. Of course the office of the president accords the respect and dignity as the leader of the executive branch, commander in chief of the armed forces and the country's primary representative in relations with foreign leaders. On that most of us would agree. So when did this presidential cult of personality begin in a country born in revolution against a monarch? Who can name two US presidents between Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt (named other than Lincoln)?

What Hath God Wrought

Tweet this Photo by Pixabay

I would suggest this is primarily a 20th century phenomenon with roots in the mid 19th century. Prior to the invention of photography and radio, most Americans did not know what the president looked or sounded like unless they were seen in person. Newspapers would print articles with words and deeds, but as we know today, print does not elicit emotions like a visuals do. By the late 19th century and early part of the last century, photography and radio were common, and presidential exploits could be communicated that way.

Charisma Sharisma

John F. Kennedy
JFK in the Navy Photo by Pixabay

Television, however, really started this personality phenomena. Kennedy was the first TV president. This is when the public began to see the person as an individual, rather than solely an elected official. Since the 1960's, presidents have used TV to various degrees of success to improve their likability as individuals. Perhaps we have even reached the point that electability depends on it, which would be unfortunate. 21st century social media is really just the latest platform used by presidents to express their individuality to Americans.

This Way Mr. Trujillo

Are we robot people?

So what you may ask? I'm not sure about you, but in a representative democracy, adulation of an elected official, who just happens to have all the responsibility mentioned previously, is a little off-putting. Some rallies remind me of grainy newsreels from Nuremberg, Havana, Moscow etc. Scary actually. Congress is often vilified for performance, which is OK, as the congress is us, and we should self criticize when appropriate to do so. But, criticism of the people, or their use as a foil to perpetuate adulation of an individual in another equal branch of government is not American.

Way Ahead

I think we need to step back, take a breath and get back to the basics. How would events today be perceived by Americans if it were 1819? What thought process and values would we apply if we were not being exposed to 24/7 television coverage, social media etc. I think it is worth taking the time to occasionally evaluate events through that lens in order to adjust our perceptions accordingly. In this country it is not about the individual, no matter what their status.

“Elected officials are manufactured personalities and celebrities.” Bertram M. Gross, Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America

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