When Bill Clinton was asked what he advised President Obama to do in the face a reluctance by the Democrats not to raise taxes, the former president declined, saying that as a rule he left it to the incumbent to speak for them both. Clinton intuitively understood that leadership is a thing so important yet tenuous that it is maintained in fragile human beings only by unfailing adherence to custom. Presidents are men like any other; and to credibly invest the awful powers of State in a human being the public pretends they are more than men and presidents usually let them pretend.
The problem Barack Obama created when he walked away from a press conference leaving Bill Clinton to carry on proceedings was that he shattered this consensual illusion. Although he may have meant well and acted generously, his actions on the podium reduced the constitutional stature of the office to altogether too familiar a level. He forgot to keep up the side for a moment, to maintain that the Presidency was an institution larger than himself; and he flicked around the badges and usages that were unimportant in themselves yet vital in that they are part of the fabric that holds a huge, powerful and diverse nation together.
For all of his “aw shucks” demeanor, Bill Clinton knew where to draw the line between Bill and the office. And he did this in part because Bill could get away with things only because of the office. His personal behavior may have been cheap, but it would be excused in order to keep the institution of the Presidency majestic. Just as politicians wear robes in order to be Judges, Presidents don an awful dignity because their office may require men out to go out to live or die. Not Barack Obama nor any other man has the right to send nuclear missiles slamming into another country; but the President of the United States does. The key is to remember that one is not the same as the other.
Poor Barack Obama did not know the difference. He forgot the presidency was not an extension of his personality; he neglected to remember that his idiosyncrasies were only tolerable within its mighty and inviolable framework; that a man might act a fool for so long as the crown was reverenced; but no king can long survive the demotion of the throne to a footstool in a saloon. The mutual illusion is part of the bargain given by the consent of the government. To shatter it can be dangerous.
Unfortunately for President Obama, Bill Clinton’s virtue did not endure enough to uphold it for long. Although he began by deferring to Obama, Clinton soon fell into the old familiar groove once the incumbent had left, and continued the press conference as if it were his own. He should have closed it down immediately, but perhaps the temptation and the habits were too great. And the damage was done.
America can do without any given man — Presidents are after all, changed every four years — but it cannot do without institutions. Men and women in far off places, often in danger and frequently in doubt, must be able to look for guidance to something they can believe is larger than themselves. Either there is a captain on the bridge, or any port in a storm. No one wins when the voice pipe from the bridge goes silent or is given over to jokes.