From the moment that George Washington declined to shake hands with his fellow citizens—he preferred a dignified bow—American presidents have affected an uneasy admixture of pomp and populism. Even Thomas Jefferson, who became the first chief executive to walk to his inauguration (which was boycotted by his predecessor, John Adams), deployed the Marine Band for an imperial touch.
No other Western democracy—at least not one without a monarch—comes close to the flags and foofaraw favored by American magistrates. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada can’t top the ceremonial trappings of Mayor Bill de Blasio when New York City puts on the dog. If Emmanuel Macron heads abroad, he boards a private jet, but not one as tricked out as Air Force One. Even Pope Francis usually flies an ordinary Alitalia charter, cheekily known as “Shepherd One.”
Some of this spectacle can be explained, and justified, by the ever tightening cordon of post–Pearl Harbor presidential security that has surrounded the man in the Oval Office—a net that will only get more tangled in the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection. But the prospect of Joe Biden’s coronavirus-constrained, no-balls inaugural might be the perfect occasion to recalibrate a contradiction that has been baked into the presidency from the start.
We’re one of the few democracies that combines in one person head of state, head of government, and commander in chief. Canadian-born American historian Timothy Naftali says, “It made sense for George Washington because the job description was written for him. And everyone after that has necessarily fallen somewhat short. So the presidency has had an iconic quality to it from the beginning, because it was to be inhabited by the first American icon.”
Even Pope Francis usually flies an ordinary Alitalia charter, cheekily known as “Shepherd One.”
Over the decades, an increasingly celebrity-conscious citizenry has conspired to pump up the pomp, and Washington’s successors have tinkered with the delicate balance between democracy and monocracy at their peril. Jimmy Carter took office promising candor in the wake of Watergate, emulated Jefferson’s first inaugural walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, sold off the presidential yacht, and turned down the White House thermostats. But even he came to acknowledge that it had been a mistake to ban the ritual playing of “Hail to the Chief,” because the public had come to expect it—and like it.
Lacking a king or queen, we invest Roosevelts and Kennedys and Bushes with mystic, dynastic qualities and relish a certain regal remove. As the Harold Wilson character tells Olivia Colman’s EIIR in the third season of The Crown, speaking of a British public put off by a documentary that tried to portray the royal family as plebian picnickers, “This is where it gets a little complicated: they don’t want you to be normal.”
A similar sentiment has long been at play on this side of the pond. Americans embraced F.D.R. and J.F.K. at least partly because of their patrician élan. For millions, Ronald Reagan’s pompadoured Hollywood sheen helped mask a multitude of what might otherwise have been crippling political and policy shortcomings. Even Donald Trump’s Mussolini-esque pageantry passes as appropriately aspirational and presidential for his faithful followers, who see in his golden tower their own castles in the air.
“This is where it gets a little complicated: they don’t want you to be normal.”
Moreover, this imperialist presidential iconography has drifted steadily downward to lesser offices throughout the land. It was Reagan who, in the 1980s, first deployed the bas-relief, blue-and-white oval with the WHITE HOUSE logo in the press-briefing room, but by a decade later the affectation had been emulated in executive departments across the federal government and in state capitols around the country. No. 10 Downing Street has no comparable Madison Avenue branding, just its plain black door and brass numerals.
The Ruritanian impulse can veer too far. Richard Nixon was excoriated when, after a European trip, he outfitted the White House’s uniformed Secret Service agents in gold-braided white tunics and stiff plastic shako hats that The New York Times said resembled those “worn by American drum majors and West German traffic policemen.” That frothy Ronald Colman wardrobe was swiftly retired.
Donald Trump sparked similar outrage with his idea for a costly Fourth of July tanks-and-troops parade inspired by the French celebration of Bastille Day, but, being Trump, he eventually put on a somewhat scaled-down version anyway.
If it’s possible for presidents to go too far on the pageantry scale, it’s not for nothing that we call the presidency “the hardest job in the world,” and average Americans have abetted strong-willed, ambitious incumbents from Teddy Roosevelt on in building impossible expectations into the role. We expect our presidents to guide the economy, avoid nuclear war, and settle our baseball strikes, while also staying out of our hair.
Trump sparked similar outrage with his idea for a costly Fourth of July tanks-and-troops parade inspired by the French celebration of Bastille Day.
“There’s a kind of political culture that we inherited from the Founders that is at once suspicious of and averse to concentrations of authority, and we see that manifested in a variety of ways,” says William Howell, a historian of the presidency at the University of Chicago. “But particularly in the modern era, we also have a public whose expectations are nearly unlimited. We look to the president to solve every imaginable problem. So this puts presidents in a remarkably difficult position. So what do they do? They manufacture power. They look for ways to extend their reach.”
That search for authority has always involved atmospherics.
Even in the aftermath of a revolution, there was ambivalence from the beginning about just how regal the new American president should be. As David McCullough recounts in his biography of John Adams, a Senate committee proposed in 1789 that the chief executive’s official title should be “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same,” and senators spent almost a month debating the point. Adams thought the desire for “distinctions” ran deep in the human character, and he favored something like “His Majesty the President.”
Only after the strongly anti-Federalist senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania pointed out that the Constitution forbade all titles of nobility was the matter resolved, in favor of the straightforward moniker whose modern acronym is POTUS.
If Americans remain conflicted about whether their presidents should be exalted, or just put their pants on one leg at a time, there may be no better candidate to test the proposition than “Amtrak Joe” Biden, who long took pride in his self-proclaimed status as the Senate’s poorest member, is famous for his unforced outreach to ordinary Americans suffering grief or loss, and was among the few senators of either party in his time in office who routinely remembered the first names of mid-level staffers on the opposite side of the aisle.
There seems little risk that Trump, in exile at Mar-a-Lago, will set himself the first task that the post-presidential Harry Truman so famously did: to “carry the grips up to the attic.” But it would be nice to think that when the 45th president finally leaves the White House, bag and baggage, he might just take some of the job’s accumulated excess tinsel home with him for good.
Todd S. Purdum is the author of several books, most recently Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution