There’s a scene in the Zero Dark Thirty movie when the actor playing the CIA director descends to the regular staff cafeteria and deigns to talk at a table with ‘Maya’ — Jessica Chastain — the analyst pursuing Osama Bin Laden. The audience understands this act of abasement shows Maya’s importance. Wow the gods are descending from Olympus. Look the director is actually sitting in the cafeteria! The question is why that should be so astounding.
Three hundred years ago people seemed more modern. In the early days of the United States, the president’s neighbors, as in the guys who lived next door, would sometimes stop by and have coffee with the incumbent. The British ambassador once found Thomas Jefferson in his gardening outfit when he came for dinner.
But now we’ve regressed to the medieval and to before that: all the way back to the world of classical Greece. To the age of spears and shields and gods descending from Olympus. Gods? Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems to understand the concept. Asked if she would take a pay cut due to the budget crisis she said: “I don’t think we should do it; I think we should respect the work we do. I think it’s necessary for us to have the dignity of the job that we have rewarded.”
If Pelosi doesn’t take home a lot of government money you might think she hasn’t earned it.
Pelosi has “rewarded the job” in the same way that the CIA director graced the cafeteria in the movie. Ennobled it by their presence. Lent it a dignity it otherwise would not have. I once stayed at a hotel in Canberra with a plaque in front of one of the rooms proclaiming that ‘Lyndon Johnson slept here.’ I would like to sleep in that room, wouldn’t you?
Ironically the poorer people become the more they seem to crave the spectacle of glitter. In the old days the peasants lined the scummy streets to watch as the Royal carriage threw mud in their face. Today they thrill to the sight of politicians cavorting with the stars, golfing with celebrity athletes, dancing on TV, hobnobbing at the Oscars. The technology is different. But the psychology is the same. The sad substitution of vicarious fantasy for a future they will never have themselves.
Presidents have become the new kings. Monarchs on steroids. Mark Steyn in his article The Royal Presidency argued that modern Presidents live much better than real-life kings.
According to the USAF, in 2010 Air Force One cost American taxpayers $181,757 per flight hour. According to the Royal Canadian Air Force, in 2011 the CC-150 Polaris military transport that flew William and Kate from Vancouver to Los Angeles cost Her Majesty’s Canadian subjects $15,505 per hour — or about 8/100ths of the cost. …
In his recent book Presidential Perks Gone Royal, Robert Keith Gray, a former Eisenhower staffer, revealed that last year the U.S. presidency cost American taxpayers $1.4 billion. Over the same period, the entire royal family cost British taxpayers about $57 million. There’s nothing “royal” about the current level of “presidential perks”: The Obama family costs taxpayers more than every European royal house put together.
But Steyn doesn’t understand (or perhaps he understands all too well) or he wouldn’t be outraged. This level of pomp and grandeur is a sacrifice the incumbent must make to keep up the dignity (there’s that word again) of the office. He doesn’t want it. As Nancy Pelosi explained, it would demean America if the President didn’t force himself to play golf with Tiger Woods or fly off to New York with the a logistical tail equal to that of an Army battalion. It is a hardship that Presidents must undertake: to endure the loneliness of command, the inconvenience of Air Force One, the stares of the public. All to keep up the dignity of the Republic.
Dignity paid for by secret tears.
The public standard for Presidential opulence and demeanor probably came from Hollywood. ‘The President’ has been variously played by James Caan, George Clooney, Michael Douglas, Warren Beatty, Harrison Ford, Mark Harmon, Morgan Freeman, Gregory Peck, Bill Pullman and John Travolta. In those depictions the President is tall, handsome, well dressed and gives nice speeches. In them can do anything. Incinerate an enemy nation, redistribute the entire national wealth, end bigotry, negotiate with space aliens and fall in love with a beautiful woman — sometimes all in the same movie. Movie Presidents don’t do anything so mundane as work. They move from glittering scene to glittering scene trading one liners or impressing people with their wisdom.
It was inevitable that at some point the current incumbent would realize that in order to remain credible he had to act like a fantasy figure. He rediscovered what kings knew for a long time: the crown and ermine are worn because that’s what people think a king wears. The President must live like a Hollywood President because that’s how real presidents act.
People are shocked to watch the CIA director eat in a cafeteria because CIA directors never do that in the movies just as many were shocked to see the SEALs fire only a dozen semi-automatic rounds during the Zero Dark Thirty Osama bin Laden raid. “What man, no full-automatic? Those rifles are fake.”
So the next time you wonder why the political leadership can exempt itself from pay cuts, Obamacare or authorize themselves to own “assault guns” with “high powered magazines” when nobody else can, remember: it’s for the dignity of the office.