Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The (Tea?) Kettle Calling the POTUS Black

This probably isn't a new thing, but I've been noticing it more often lately: fans of President Obama referring to him online as POTUS when defending him against his critics. For example, this comment today on Facebook on Obama's current troubles with the American Catholic hierarchy:
POTUS is safe on this one.
It's easier to type the five letters than the full title, I suppose, though "Obama" also has just five letters. Maybe referring to him by his surname feels disrespectful, but calling him "Barack" is too familiar, and POTUS is like "Commander-in-Chief," suitably pompous and grandiose. What really bothers me about the practice is the tendency to make Obama, or any other person, disappear into the office he holds, so that criticism of Obama becomes an insult to the Presidency itself. (A good example of this was the National Citizens Committee for Fairness to the Presidency, founded in the depths of the Watergate Scandal by Rabbi Baruch Korff, who'd taken it into his head to defend Richard Nixon. I recall seeing Korff saying during a TV interview that he didn't believe The President had committed an impeachable offense: he hadn't committed adultery, for example. I always thought that it was Nixon and his defenders who were being unfair to the Presidency if anyone was.)

As usual, this concern is purely partisan. People who called George W. Bush "the Chimp" or worse are suddenly very punctilious about the dignity of the Office of the President. And vice versa, of course: people who think Dubya's likeness belongs on Mount Rushmore refuse to recognize the Kenyan Usurper as the country's Executive. In that sense, both sides agree about the sanctity of the presidency, and that this or that incumbent profanes the sacred seat of Washington. As Glenn Greenwald has written, this doesn't even rise to the level of ideology: it's an authoritarian cult.

After I wrote about that snapshot of the Obamas* on Sunday, I got e-mail from a reader who agreed with me about the cult of personality that surrounds the presidency and infects American politics. Not only has that cult always been with us -- it followed George Washington into office -- but I think it's intrinsic to politics, much more than a concern with issues ever is. The Leader, the Big Man and his entourage, his largesse, the justice he dispenses, have always been part of American politics. People talk about separating the man from the office, but the man was there first. Not, as some pundits would have it, that we want a President we would want to have dinner with (though we would surely want to, with much bowing and scraping and consciousness of how honored we were to have him under our roof, and of course we'd have our photo taken with him to display on the wall forever); we want a President we can look up to and adore, partly a regular guy because this is America and we're all the same here, but a guy who's more regular than others, and for whose good name we'll challenge any smart alecks to put up their dukes. This isn't limited to politics: the same mentality pervaded the popular defense of Joe Paterno, for example.

With all this symbolism attached to the President, it's not surprising that his opponents demonize him: it's as natural as idolizing him. Criticizing him rationally would be irrelevant, even anti-relevant. Instead he must be depicted with horns and tail or ridiculed, merged with Alfred E. Newman (and it's convenient that both Bush and Obama can be assimilated to Newman's image so easily), burned in effigy, and vilified with projection so transparent that it almost has to be deliberate. The President, like the Monarch, is the Nation, and criticizing him is spitting on America according to his devotees; to his opponents, the Dirty President spits on America by his unfitness to occupy the office. (Remember all the Democrats who were so vocally glad in January 2009 to finally have a president they weren't embarrassed by?) These feelings can be rationalized by the fact that our Presidents are more or less elected, and so do represent us in a way that an unelected monarch doesn't; but the baggage attached to our presidents, the cult of personality, looks like something a good deal more ... primitive. Certainly nothing rational.

*In connection with that photo, I saw several references to Michelle Obama as FLOTUS, which clarified the way people are using POTUS. "First Lady of the United States" is not a title, not a political office, though it is part of the baggage of monarchy that we proudly republican Americans have always tried to pin onto the President and those around him. As Gore Vidal wrote, "Martha Washington contented herself with the unofficial (thus seldom omitted) title 'Lady' Washington." But the President's wife is a private citizen (COTUS?), albeit a private citizen stuck in one of the most blinding and uncomfortable public spotlights on the planet. As Jacqueline Kennedy complained, the "operators at the White House ... just love saying 'First Lady.'"