KING ABDULLAH of Jordan has lately taken to disguising himself as a cameraman, cabdriver or whatever and venturing out among the people to see how things are going in the kingdom. Abdullah's forays have a practical purpose, of course, which is why the press quickly learns of them; the new king needs to establish an identity for himself as a man of the people and a worthy successor to his father, Hussein.
But there also has to be a kick just in living out one of the more enduring of popular daydreams: that is, seeing the look on the face of one of life's everyday tormentors -- officious government clerk, bullying cop, obnoxious motorist, imperious airline agent -- when you fling back your hood, tear off the false beard and reveal yourself to be dread sovereign of the realm. Nor is the pleasure in such things confined to kings; its popularity probably accounts for the many stories of rulers-in-disguise that are told not only in Arab societies but in present and former kingdoms around the world.
The idea of people being called on the royal carpet for the commonplace annoyances that almost always go unpunished in our actual lives is enough to give monarchy -- what little is left of it on the earth -- a good name. It takes a certain majesty, after all (a quality generally lacking in elected officials, who got where they are by begging for our votes) to turn some petty malefactor into a sniveling example of contrition just by fixing him with a royal stare for flicking cigarette butts out the car window, talking too loudly on the cell phone or making people wait three hours in line at the DMV. At such moments, even confirmed democrats must share in the sentiment made famous by Mel Brooks in his portrayal of a pampered and all-powerful Louis XIV: "It's good to be the king."