Some 30 or so liberal-arts professors from small colleges spent the better part of a recent week pondering American values in a wooded grove on the Wye River not far from here. The "readings" ran from Aristotle and Plato to Machiavelli, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln and FDR. A few nonacademic gadflies were invited along to lend contemporary context and/or comic relief.
In that spirit, I offered what struck me at the time as a constructive thought. We were talking about "Citizenship in the American Polity" -- about how well we govern ourselves -- and the consensus seemed to be that the system doesn't work. By way of striking a positive note, I ventured the proposition that what this country needs is a monarchy.
You might have thought I had suggested a Fourth Reich. A monarchy, the assembled academics impatiently explained, is what the American Revolution was against. A constitutional monarchy, I explained, is what I had in mind. But that would require, it was agreed, an impossible return to Go. Picky- picky, I thought, when someone questioned how we could procreate a royal family starting from scratch. Let me finish, I insisted. But this was academe, so I would like to take this opportunity to pursue the point.
Forget the royal lineage. The point is that the United States is alone among the Western democracies in combining in one office, the presidency, two jobs: head of government and head of state. The European democracies have kings or queens or presidents to symbolize the state as father figures and friends in court for all the people. To run the government, they have prime ministers whose power resides in political parties and their command of parliaments.
We, on the other hand, ask our presidents to personify the integrity and continuity of the state while managing a government whose power flows from a legislature his own political party may or may not control. You do not have to search far back in the record to demonstrate that American presidents have rarely been good at both.
Jimmy Carter had, if anything, too tight a grasp on the controls of the executive branch; Congress was in friendly Democratic hands. But he got in a fight with a rabbit and said things like "Trust me," which is more than a politician can expect. Then came Iran, and he lost the prerequisite of a head of state: a meaningful relationship with the people.
With Ronald Reagan, it is just the other way around. Like Carter, he ran for the presidency as a head of state, with a proper royal disdain for the grubby side of government. He would be the people's champion against the craven special interests of Congress and the bureaucracies. But unlike Carter or any other recent president (except Eisenhower), King Ronald has retained the trust of his subjects by seeing to it that they do not look upon him as a head of government.
Cosseted by courtiers, he lets his ministers take the falls. When the parliament rebels, the head of state cannot be held accountable. The right gestures help: the reassuring regal wave, the easy grin, the questioning cocked eyebrow, the outstretched arms, palms up -- all these convey the right blend of benevolence and innocence.
A president who is really good at the role of head of state is only expected to propose: a Middle East peace plan, a foolproof bubble to end the threat of nuclear war, the consignment of an "evil empire" to history's ash heap, a balanced budget. "You guys work it out," a head of state can say, and get away with it.
The trouble is that even if it works with the people, the relationship is strictly personal. The chemistry may get some good things done and insulate the president from the consequences of bad things done, or undone. But it is a sometime thing. For a coherent, stable way of governing, you need both a head of state and a head of government. A president who is good at one of those functions is almost doomed to be bad at the other.
"The modern President's authority, essentially, derives from his status as a popular hero," political scientist William Schneider wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times. "If a (European) prime minister . . . proves to be an ineffective leader, power can be transferred to another party leader without creating a political crisis. It is much harder to transfer legitimacy in the American system. A President's power is personal, it must be established directly with the American people and cannot be transferred."
Schneider doesn't know of any sure cure for what ails our political system. It may be simply something that we have to learn to live with. That's why I brought it up at a learning experience here in the tranquil expanses of Maryland's Eastern Shore. It was a perfect occasion for thinking thoughts that lead you nowhere in particular, in no hurry.