Toward a Ceremonial American Presidency

Joachim Gauk

Joachim Gauck, president of the Federal Republic of Germany, a Lutheran pastor who rose to prominence serving as a civil rights activist in East Germany.

What accounts for the staying power of monarchies? Why have these old and, in the view of many people, anachronistic institutions survived into the 21st century, even in advanced western European countries? Arguably because kings and queens affirm a nation’s traditions in ways that republican heads of state can’t.

In a New York Times editorial aptly titled “Monarchies, More Useful Than You Think,” Serge Schmemann contends that despite all the travails that monarchies have endured over the ages, kings and queens occupy political heights far beyond the reach of their republican counterparts and, consequently, are less susceptible to the slings and arrows of outrageous political fortune.

And this raises an interesting question – a heretical one, yes, but a nonetheless interesting one:  Would those nations with strong republican traditions, such as the United States,  be better off with heads of state who were constitutionally more insulated against political strife?  Would these nations fare better with ceremonial presidencies — offices that, while republican in substance, borrow liberally from the older monarchical tradition?

One thing is certain: The American presidency has become sullied over the past couple of generations, thanks to Vietnam, Watergate and the Lewinsky scandal.  And let’s be brutally frank with ourselves, no American president has ever stood entirely above the fray of political intrigue, not even the most exalted of them of all, George Washington.

That reality was driven home to me years ago watching The Queen, starring Helen Mirren.  I was especially struck by one of the opening scenes when the prime minister-designate, Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen , attends his first weekly audience with his sovereign.   I was familiar with this longstanding British constitutional tradition, but I was unprepared for how small it made Blair seem: the politician who had clawed his way up the sordid, cragged slope of political power standing alongside a woman who had pledged her life to a selfless commitment to nonpartisanship.

The depiction underscored the sharp contrast between these two offices, and within a wider context, between the British monarchy and the American presidency. It raises an interesting question, though, a purely academic one: Does an institution that has become so tarnished as the American presidency befit a nation as powerful and as intellectually and culturally influential as the United States? Would the American political system be better off scrapping its executive, presidential model in favor of a ceremonial alternative patterned after those of Ireland, Israel and post-war Germany?

The Founding Fathers could not have anticipated the overburdened, highly partisanized institution that the presidency has become, certainly within the last three generations. They envisioned a presidency far removed from the pump and circumstance of monarchies but that was that was also significantly disengaged from the grotty tit-for-tat of political partisanship.

Granted, such a ceremonial president wouldn’t wield the kind of raw power associated with the current executive presidential model, but he/she could – conceivably, at least – wield considerably more moral influence. Again, the argument is a purely academic one, as nothing like this will ever come to pass. Even so, we may have gotten a taste of it roughly two generations ago when Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford tried to hammer out an arrangement at the 1980 Republican National Convention whereby Ford, serving as Reagan’s vice president, would have assumed more of the day-to-day responsibility for the executive powers of the presidency, freeing up the president to exert more moral and symbolic leadership.

The French have something like this – a sort of hybridized presidency that embodies characteristics of both the American executive model and the present-day German monarchical model.

If only we Americans could develop a taste for something similar.


About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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