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Portraits of power (10/12/2008)
By Janet Lewis Burns
There’s a song on Bob Dylan’s 1989 album “Unplugged” named “Dignity,” which is a lyrical search for honor, worth, and self-respect. ”Lookin’ into the last forgotten years… for dignity.”

The question has been addressed often: why has respect for the office of president of the United States deteriorated? Several reasons stand out. Media coverage has become bold and intrusive, in the faces of political figures, since advanced technology has become nearly limitless, satiating the public’s hunger for scandal.

During Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, in the early 1900s, came the expansion of White House power, a closer, more personal look by U.S. citizens at an activist “celebrity president,” the center of national attention. The human nature of an individual who travels and campaigns extensively soon seeps through their very public persona, revealing their faults, weaknesses, and indiscretions.

What was the fate of the most hated U.S. president, Richard M. Nixon? After a five-year, post-Watergate exile, he emerged from seclusion as a self-named “elder statesman.” In July of 1979 he and wife Pat had attempted to purchase a nine-room penthouse in New York City for $1 million. The other 34 residents in an uproar, he was turned down flat.

“Nixon was in constant danger from a multitude of would-be assassins who wanted the honor of taking him down,” Steven Gaines writes in his true chronicle “The Sky’s the Limit,” from which I found this account. Sacrificing a $92,500 deposit, Nixon was turned away from yet another N.Y. City condominium by would-be neighbors. The Nixons spent several unhappy years in a New York townhouse before Pat’s death. Nixon passed away, in exile from American citizens, in Yorba Linda, California, in April 1994.

Early presidents rarely spoke directly to the public. (President Clinton delivered 600 speeches in his first year in office.) From “Reason,” a libertarian journal, author Gene Healy states, “The modern vision of the presidency couldn’t be further from the view of the chief executive’s role held by the framers of the Constitution. In an age long before distrust of power was condemned as cynicism, the founding fathers designed a presidency of modest authority and limited responsibilities.”

The expansion of White House power was brought about by crisis situations, namely two World Wars and the Great Depression, when people panicked, consigning social power to one person. “By the end of his twelve-year reign, FDR had firmly established the president as a national protector and nurturer.”

In the 21st century, what or who has bestowed George W. Bush with so much power? Healy answers that question handily. In essence, members of the president’s legal team created an alternative version of the national charter, “in which the president has unlimited power to launch war, wiretap without judicial scrutiny,” and seize and hold American citizens on American soil for the duration of the war on terror “without having to answer to a judge.” Ouch!

Although few in the media noted it, the Bush administration was also granted enhanced authority for domestic use of the military. Healy notes, “No president should have the powers President Bush has sought and seized in the past seven years.”

Power and leadership are not one and the same. Was it flimsy leadership, for instance, that led to 42% of U.S. adults below age 65 to be underinsured or uninsured for health care coverage in 2007? How about the average mortgage debt for a typical U.S. household now at $84,911; home equity loans of $10,062; and credit card debts averaging $8,565? (Figures from AARP Bulletin.)

Gene Healy’s article “Supreme Warlord of the Earth,” in October’s Utne magazine, is very cogent. “The Constitution’s architects never conceived of the president as the person in charge of national destiny,” he concludes.

How did we, citizens of the United States of America, get from humble grass root’ dignity, devotion to God and country, and liberty and justice for all to extravagant and ruthless political campaigns and distrust in our leaders?

How much more debt can a nation endure before the walls come tumbling down?

(I wrote this before the Stock Market debacle.) That’s a circumstance beyond my capacity to comment on.

Janet Burns lives in Lewiston. She can be reached at patandjanburns@embarqmail.com.  


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