Americans are starved for royalty, and it shows in the treatment of our presidential candidates. Sure, we want someone who can run the country well and solve the myriad crises that face this nation. But we also want someone who looks good, makes pretty speeches, provides us with entertainment and projects an image of American might to the rest of the world.
Our problem is that we try to compress all these things into one person.
If you want evidence of the royal nature of our president, look at the way he is treated as compared to the prime minister of the United Kingdom, a country that does indeed have a monarch. The president lives in a massive mansion that is easily the equal of Buckingham Palace, while the prime minister lives in a town-house. When Bush flew over Stanford, his Marine One was surrounded by a half-dozen military helicopters. The prime minister doesnt even have his own plane. The president only talks to the media during infrequent, carefully scripted press conferences, so he does not embarrass himself, while the prime minister endures a weekly, televised ordeal where he fields whatever questions are thrown at him from the members of Parliament.
The two are treated differently by their respective nations because the prime minister is just a guy whose job is running the government. Whereas the only person we have to represent the power and prestige of the United States of America is our president, when Britain wants symbolism, they turn to their royal family.
Thats why the legal troubles of the Bush twins get reported on the front page of the Times of India, and there are villagers in Mongolia who know that Bill Clinton had sex with Monica Lewinsky the symbolic role of the president is important. If we elect someone that we wouldnt want to have a beer with, then, by extension, the rest of the world wont want to have a beer with us.
Usually, however, attractive, friendly people with nice voices have developed those traits at the expense of other qualities that are more useful in governing, like aggressiveness, intelligence and wonkish attention to detail. Thats why we so often have to choose between a genial incompetent and an uncharismatic egghead, like George W. Bush vs. Al Gore.
These trade-offs are part of what make our presidential elections both more difficult and more boring than they should be. Whenever we really want to focus on how inspiring Barack Obama is, we need to realize that were about to give this man tremendous power over the future of the world. Whenever we focus on Hillarys experience, we also have to think about whether she is the right face for America to present to the world.
And then, even if we elect a president with both charisma and competence, I think Ill have a nagging sense that weve gotten the worst of both deals. Will we have someone who is less charismatic or less intelligent than if he had specialized?
But there is a solution to this problem. We need to separate the ceremonial and administrative roles of the presidency and give them to two people. Suddenly, a massive range of possibilities opens up. We can have our movie star and our nerd at the same time. Lets elect a King in addition to the President.
The King wouldnt need to have beliefs or policies. He could focus on unifying the country. He could just go to ribbon-cuttings and make friendship visits to other countries. He could have Hollywood speech-writers who would be freed from the burden of trying to solve problems. Instead they could give us a steady array of short speeches, rousing or solemn as the occasion demanded, perfect for the evening news.
And our President wouldnt need to look good. He wouldnt need for people to like him. He could jst sit in some Washington sub-basement surrounded by white papers and policy briefs and budgets.
Forget Hillary Clinton, lets get some arch-nerd no one has heard of to be President. And forget Barack Obama, I say we elect Harrison Ford as King. We wouldnt need to settle anymore.