…When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men
“These are their reasons: they are
For, I believe, they are portentous
Julius Caesar, I, iii
Over the past fifteen years the American public consciousness has been witness to a succession of political prodigies: to assassinations, civil insurrections, imperial war, the shame of military defeat, and the brief tyranny of the Nixon regime. Yet the mood of the present moment, when the administration of Jimmy Carter has just completed its first year, is not one of relief but one of foreboding. And this despite the fact that Carter has committed no moral or legal offenses remotely comparable to those of Johnson and Nixon; and that for all of his mistakes he will never match Gerald Ford’s talent for blunder. Nonetheless it seems as though American society at large, and not merely the representatives of powerful interest groups, has silently refused its support and left the president virtually powerless.
This widespread anxiety among a citizenry which had grudgingly given the president only the barest claim to electoral legitimacy may reflect some deeper trouble than doubts about the competence of Jimmy Carter. It may indicate a disorder that has been gathering around the nation’s highest office for the past half century.
During the past fifteen years this society has been locked into a ritual of political excess, of misrule from both sides, of imperial presidents overreaching and contributing to the corruption of the citizenry, while the society has responded by indiscriminately destroying its leaders. The first intimation came with the murder of John Kennedy; then in the death and near death of presidential prototypes, such as Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and George Wallace; then in the forced retirement of Lyndon Johnson; then in the expulsion of Richard Nixon, preceded by the disgrace of his natural successor, Spiro Agnew; and, finally, in the temporary presidency of Gerald Ford who was distinguished by two qualities: he was unelected and he turned out to be the first incumbent since Hoover to have failed in the effort to succeed himself.
Taken along with the sense of collapse that surrounds the current president, these events signify that an unnatural rite has become incorporated into the anthropology of American political life: the ritual destruction of the president. In a relatively brief period the nation has consumed four presidents, terminating them all unnaturally, and now we are watching a fifth struggling to retain a semblance of authority. The significance of the ritual lies not only in what it portends for that office, but for what it signifies for the historical relationship between the president and the American people. In the twentieth century, especially, that relationship has been a critical element in America’s self-conception, in its collective identity as a democracy. The ultimate victim of the ritual described above may be the sovereign people.
How much of a crisis? It will be—I am…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.