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The Highest Office
The Presidency has outlas fed the thrones of emperors and kings, shoguns and cxars, to become the world’s principal place of power
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
In F. D. R.’s day, it was advisable to notice who saw the President in his bedroom before he put on the awkward apparatus which alone allowed him Io make public appearances. Sometimes the éminence grise took public office, as Harry Hopkins did, and as Colonel House did al lhe time of the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles. Sometimes some of the most powerful figures around the President have been officials of nominally secondary rank. Yet it is as certain as lhings can be that Mr. McGeorge Bundy was a good deal more important under President Kennedy than some members of the formal Cabinet. Confidants rose and fell, grew in favor or became an intolerable political burden, as happened to the unfortunate Governor Sherman Adams under President Eisenhower. But all of their importance came from their access to the President, oft the record, unofficial, or in some instances official but still off the record. The White House is very much smaller than Versailles, but the corridors round the President’s private offices are like the Galerie des Glaces or the Oeil-de-Boeuf at Versailles. One could almost feel the hopes and fears, the desires as strong as sexual lust, in the breasts of some who had, and others who wished to have, access to the arcana imperii .
It is for this reason that the President of the United States must be “a lonely man.” If he has too many friends, especially friends of the wrong kind, and if he too openly abandons to them the prerogatives that the nation has conferred on him, he goes the way of Warren Gamaliel Harding. The power must finally be in his hands.
It is because it is the place of ultimate decision—for example the dread decision in 1962 to blockade Cuba, made by Mr. Kennedy alter long and careful consultations, but made officially and alone by him—that the Presidency has in the eyes of the American people this sacred character. The President is given a charge like that given to the Roman dictator of old, “that no harm befall the Republic.” As the greatest of Presidents, Lincoln, asserted more than once, he alone took the special oath which the Constitution imposes on the President, “that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Most Presidents have done their best in trying to live up to that oath, and some have died by violence in trying to carry out their duties, as Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy did. It is a savage thing to say, but I have no doubt that some of the sacredness of the Presidency comes from the fact that it has had its martyrs.
The Presidency was never a mere secular office after the murder of Lincoln. It is true that his mantle has been thrown over some rather curious successors. Harding, by universal agreement the worst President ever to hold the office, was lamented with great sincerity when he died suddenly—and not a moment too soon. William McKinley was generally regretted, with fairly good reason. So far as most of the deaths of Presidents in office, by violence or by the work of nature, are concerned, the change has not necessarily been great or more than merely political. But the most recent death recalls two previous deaths which were shocks to the American people because they brought into play this religious reverence for the presidential office and this sense of the immense importance of that office, never so great as today when the President of the United States could destroy the human race.
The three deaths which have given this kind of shock to the American people have been those of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John Fit/gerald Kennedy. Contrasts are obvious enough. In age, in background, in length of service, they differ greatly. But each was, in a very visible sense, the leader in a time of troubles. Lincoln had a well-authenticated premonition of some great event about to occur, and may indeed have had some premonition of his death in the days before Good Friday, 1865. He was struck down in the moment of victory after uttering in the Second Inaugural the noblest speech of a victorious leader in history. His death provoked an outburst of horror and grief, especially among the Negroes, which has been equalled only in November, 1963.
The death of F. D. R. was less unexpected, although it was not expected at that time; it came suddenly and especially shocked the millions of young Americans who had never known any other President. As there were “myths after Lincoln,” there were myths after the death of F. D. R. When his body was brought through New York on its way to the ancestral home in Hyde Park, a black cloud settled over Manhattan and moved the superstitions to reverie: it was an old story— When beggars die, there are no comets seen:I The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes .
What legends will grow up around the death of John Kennedy it is too early to say.