Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

1-05 Should We Treat Presidents Like Kings?

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Americans should apply some perspective to the "simple tributes" accorded to former President Gerald Ford upon his death.
The media spoke at great length about the modest arrangements to honor Ford and noted that they were as he would have liked. Wrong. They were as modest as he could make them but he was pressured to allow much more of the trappings than he wanted.
One commentator spoke of the "protocol people" sitting him down years before his death and impressing on him the importance to America of him having a stately funeral.
So is a stately funeral important to America? It wasn't to our founders. They were escaping the royal rulers of Europe. Their government was based on all men being created equal. The president was first among equals, while he was president, but he became a common man again when his term ended.
Tributes to past presidents truly were modest back then. Funerals were private. Lowered flags and some tributes were about the extent of any recognition.
It was different when a sitting president died, especially under tragic circumstances, such as Abraham Lincoln. His was the first "state" funeral. He also was first to "lie in state," which historian David Clary of Roswell describes as a royalist term, borrowed from Europe.
But following Lincoln's mourning, presidents' funerals became modest again. The next extravagant funeral was that accorded President John Kennedy, a glamorous president also assassinated while in office.
Kennedy's assassination was carried worldwide on television and so was his funeral. Clary believes it was the advent of television that brought about the excessive coverage, not only of presidential funerals but of everything a president or past president does.
Ever since Kennedy, presidential inaugurations have been surrounded by pomposity. The annual message of the president to Congress has become the State of the Union address and presidents retire to a glorious life of high-paid speeches, corporate directorships, seven-figure book advances and library-museums befitting a pharaoh.
Former President Ronald Reagan's funeral set the new gold standard. He came from the world of Hollywood glitz as did his first lady. Ford's funeral was a step below but still far more than he or our founding fathers thought was appropriate.
Clary may be right about television being the influence that changed everything. Either that, or it was coincidence that Jack Kennedy was the first president to be a TV star just as television spread nationwide. After that, every president wanted to be a star.
The creation of 24-hour news networks has increased the excesses. Even with President Ford and James Brown dying just a day apart, the news stations still had more than ample time to overload us with the pageantry stage managers planned.
And what about the American public? If we feel the adoration is more than any royal ruler deserves, we could tell that to the rating services and the all-news channels would go back to covering serial murders and missing little girls full time.
But since that isn't happening, should we assume that Americans feel a need for some of the pageantry and veneration of their leaders and former leaders? We do seem to have a fascination with European royalty.
Maybe our presidents fill the dual role of a king and a prime minister. The Europeans seem to keep those roles sorted out. Veneration for royalty who represent tradition but have no power and treatment of their elected leaders as common men and women.
Anyway, former President Jimmy Carter may be the next to leave us. He is a humble man. Do you suppose he will have any better luck than Jerry Ford at toning down the excesses of his funeral?
Probably not, because sitting presidents have a stake in keeping up the tradition. And you can bet the farm on no president giving up the Secret Service protection, free office space and presidential libraries and museum now accorded to presidents.
FRI, 1-05-07

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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