The Highest Office


The assassination of President Kennedy has brought out, in an agonizing : way, the realities of the American Presidency and has again demonstrated its unique function as a political organism. The first truth to be asserted about this great office is that the President of the United States is a monarch. The Constitution, in deliberately ambiguous terms, entrusts to him the whole executive power of the Union and in addition confers on him the separate ollice of Commander in Chief with complete control of the armed forces. This, of course, does not mean the President is an absolute monarch. He has to share power with Congress (as President Kennedy painfully discovered in his three years in the White House); and both he and Congress share power with the Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, it is important again to insist on the monarchical character of the American Presidency. It is monarchical in two ways: monarchical because of the concentration of power in the hands of one man, monarchical because he, more than any other institution (and every President is an institution), embodies “We the People of the United States.” In the President, in any President, the American people see their embodied power and see their own driving force personified.

In another sense, the President is a monarch. For he performs many of the ritual functions of a hereditary ruler. He is the universal patron of good causes, a role that the late President Kennedy took very seriously. His precedence is as automatic as that of the Queen. He lives in the most historic building in Washington, the only one that has an aura of majesty about it. American boys are continually told that they can, when they grow up, become President of the United States (girls are not yet told that they can). Under the easy and democratic exterior, the protocol of the White House is as severe as the protocol of Buckingham Palace. The presidential inauguration is a kind of quadrennial coronation. And even the President who has made an immense number of enemies remains President and is entitled, except among (he most pathologically minded, to respect and, indeed, for his office if not for himself; to reverence.

The White House itself symbolizes the character of this great office. On the one hand, it is a princely residence; on the other, it is a power house. It is what Versailles or the Hofburg were in the days of the great monarchies of Europe. Beside, behind Buckingham Palace, there is 10 Downing Street; there is nothing beside, nothing behind the White House. True, General de Gaulle in the Elysée at the moment performs a double function as political leader and as the mandatory of the Sovereign People. But General de Gaulle is a phenomenon, he is not an institution. The Elysée has none of the magical, none of the sacred character of the White House. Nor does General de Gaulle “as President of the Republic or in person impose on his enemies the reverence that the presidential office imposes on the enemies of any President of the United States.

Washington is a great pilgrimage city. To it come from every part of the United States hundreds of thousands of visitors, especially parents bringing their young children to the sacred shrine of the Republic. The White House is not unique in Washington. Many children are brought by parents to see the Supreme Court in session and are suitably impressed. Some children are possibly impressed by the Senate, some possibly even by the House of Representatives, but neither of these bodies has any air of the sacred about itself, and it can hardly be said that in recent years this refusal to give to Congress the reverence given to the Presidency has been an act of manifest injustice. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, the leaders of the Senate, may be and in the past sometimes have been great men, but they are not august; there is no charisma attached to their office.

Children and their parents pour through the White House during the visiting hours, entering a shrine far more august than that of the Supreme Court, not to speak of the Capitol. For one thing, the building is much more a part of history. Jt has been altered inside and out, it has been tactfully extended, but it is fundamentally the building into which John Adams moved while it was still unfinished, for the last few months of his unhappy term in office. It has known the horrors of war. It was burned by a British army, and there is a legend, not totally vindicated, that it got the name “White House” because of the paint put over it to hide the scars of burning.

An elegant piece of Dublin architecture transplanted to the United States, it is perhaps the only important official building in Washington of intrinsic architectural merit. But it is not to admire this copy of Leinster House (which now houses the Bail) that the pilgrims come. They come to what may not extravagantly be described as the Parthenon of the American Acropolis. It is a house soaked in history and soaked in blood. The great ghost that walks through the White House is that of the greatest of Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, and this gives the necessary tragic note to this national shrine. Il was to the White House he returned after his visit to conquered Richmond; it was on the way to the White House upon the Potomac that he recited, “ Duiican is in his grave. After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well. ” It was here his body was brought, and the Lincoln Room is still the most sacred part of the White House.