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Choosing Presidents - Symbols of Political Leadership

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Symbols of Political Leadership Second Edition

- -, _1Expanded, with a new introduction I 1

, by the author


CHOOSING PRESIDENTS Symbols of Political Leadership Second Edition

Michael Novak Expanded, With a New Introduction by the Author

Transaction Publishers

New Brunswick (U.S.A.) and London (U.K.)


New material this edition copyright© 1992 by Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08903. Originally published in 1974 by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photo­ copy, recording, or permission in writing from the publisher. All in­ quiries should be addressed to Transaction Publishers, Rutgers-The State University, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08903. Library of Congress Catalog Number: 91-17280 ISBN: 1-56000-567-X Printed in the United States of America Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Novak, Michael. Choosing presidents: symbols of political leadership/Michael Novak, with a new introduction by the author. cm. p. Rev. ed. of: Choosing our king, 1974. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 1-56000-567-X 1. Presidents-United States-Election-I 972. 2. Presidents-United States. 3. Symbolism. 4. National characteristics, American. I. No­ vak, Michael. Choosing our king. II. Title. 1991 JK526 1972.N68 91-17280 324.973'0924-dc20 CIP


Introduction to the Transaction Edition Acknowledgments Preface








3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.


Symbolic Realism What Are Symbols? Who Are We? Unseen Power Egalitarian and King Five Elements of Symbolic Power Making the Most of Improbable Talents A Professional's Memo The Liturgy of Leadership

3 6 12





41 48



Being Moral and Being Practical I 1. The Constituency of Conscience 12. That Word "Moral" 13. Vietnam: More Moral Than Thou? 14. The Rise and Fall of Liberal Moralism 15. Beyond Niebuhr: Symbolic Realism 10.









16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21.

The Nation with the Soul of a Church The Innocence Lingers On The Civil Religions Five Protestant Civil Religions High-Church America The Second Great Tradition

105 Ill

123 131 137 147



Traditional Symbols 23. New Hampshire Snows 22.

163 166

24. The Wallace Sun 25. lvlcCarthy in Illinois 26. Sorting Out in Wisconsin

27. Together with McGovern at the Garden 28. The Shooting of Governor Wallace 29. Eight lvfajor Presidential Symbols




217 229




30. 3 I. 32. 33. 34. 3 5.

America as a Business Three Corruptions Reforming the Presidency The Necessity of Dirty Hands The Dark Night of Faith The New Dark Civil Religion

241 247

258 270





36. 37. 38. 39.

Carter's Hidden Religious Majority Rival Visions of "Community," 1988 Moiling, Muddling, and Malaise Miracle in the Desert A Select Bibliography Index

313 320 334 337 341 349

INTRODUCTION TO THE TRANSACTION EDITION I began with two convictions: that the presidency is the nation's most central religious symbol, and that American civilization is best under­ stood as a set of secular religious systems.

Choosing our King, 197 4

Ever since childhood, presidential elections have stood out in my memory above the flux of public events. Elections are great public liturgies; they stamp imagination. My childhood was spent under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and my first campaign memory (I was seven) is of bright blue Wendell Willkie buttons in the school yard in 1940 and a flurry of competitive excitement. I can't recall whether it was he or Dewey in 1944 who had the button, "We don't like Fala ei­ ther." In the fifty-odd years since then, presidential elections have become no less important. The distinctive symbolic weight each new incumbent has imparted to that office is remarkable; the names Truman, Eisen­ hower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan still stir passion. Each man really did give special color to an era, and even Gerald Ford who served but two years brought peace to a troubled nation, just in time for the moving bicentennial celebration of 1976. Thus, the hypothesis that the American presidency is the most dra­ matic expression of our nation's "civil religion" has received further confirmation in the four elections since the book's appearance. A few words may serve to add those years to the perspective of this book. In the Afterword, new materials have been added to cover the Carter presidency and the Bush-Dukakis election in 1988. To complement these, I will give more space here to the Reagan years.





Choosing Presidents

Since Choosing Our King appeared in 1974 its argument has demonstrated at least a little predictive power. Once an observer discerns how well the two nominees of their respective parties speak �e five major symbolic languages of the nation, and which of the two candidates better personifies the nation's sense of itself, the likely outcome also looms into view. For example, the "civil religion" of American evangelicals, I had noted in 1974, must one day become visible and give us a new set of public symbols for presidential use. It did so through Jimmy Carter two years later. In 1975, I wrote a piece suggesting that Jimmy Carter, then at barely 1 percent in the national polls, might well seize the Democratic nomination ("Can a Protestant be Elected President?" The Christian Century). A little later, in April of 1976, before Carter was nominated and elected, I described for the Washington Post how his special "civil religion" would likely affect a Carter presidency. Evangelicals are a huge bloc of Americans whom our highly educated elites keep mis­ placing, and by April 1976, journalists were scrambling to "rediscover" them yet again. Reprinted here in an Afterword, this essay offered a predictive forecast of Jimmy Carter's strengths and weaknesses over the next four years. In 1980, using other symbolic materials, I came to believe that Ronald Reagan would show greater strength than George Bush in the nominating process and, to the surprise of most others too, would soundly defeat Carter in November. As readers of the original edition will know, I had worked for George McGovern after mid-July 1972 as a paid staff member of his Washington headquarters. At headquarters (1776 K St.) I didn't see much of the candidate, whose pursuit of the nomination I had followed on the campaign trail as a reporter and student of the presidency. Dur­ ing my first weeks on the job, after his nomination, my contributions to Senator McGovern's campaign were mainly three: trying to give it a focus on Catholic ethnic voters; writing one speech for the nominee to give at a Catholic high school in Chicago, whose delivery several highly placed campaign officials tried to block right up until the final hour; and writing (under the name "George McGovern") a newspaper op-ed piece arguing that security of life and limb is "the first of all civil rights," and that a ·war on crime, far from being divisive, would unite persons of all races who currently lived in fear of their physical safety. From mid-August on, vice-presidential candidate Sargent Shriver (whose acceptance speech I helped to draft) invited me to accompany



Introduction to the Transaction Edition


him on his campaign plane. We were assigned the "Catholic ethnic cities," doing tour after tour of Philadelphia, New York City, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Akron, Chicago, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, with forays to many other locations (often Hispanic) thrown in. We often made three different cities and seven or eight appearances each day. I learned to love both men-"Sarge" Shriver and George McGovern-a great deal. But the particular ideological and symbolic color that McGovern's staff gave to the Democratic Party seemed to me a sad mistake. I was then developing an allergy to the left wing of the party, which has not been cured since. With some difficulty I have remained a Democrat, while watching with sorrow the abdication by Democrats of most of the classic principles and understandings of the Democratic Party of my youth. The party has more left me, I think, than I it. In any case, the ground that the Democratic Party was giving up during the 1970s, not only regarding foreign policy but also regarding the principles of individual opportunity and individual merit, was easily occupied by a new sort of Republican. These were Republicans who had broken with the Republican Old Guard, Republicans who thought and felt and acted like the Democrats of yore. These new Republicans could plausibly be called "conservatives" (if only as foils to "liberals"), but they could by no stretch of the imagination be called Tories, Estab­ lishment Republicans, Isolationists, or "Green-eyeshade Republicans" (constantly worried about balanced budgets). In style, the most capti­ vating among them was Jack Kemp, then-Congressman from New York and a leader in the House. Kemp, in tum, seemed to capture the imagination of Ronald Reagan, former Governor of California. With both were a flock of Young Turks in the Congress ("the new right" as balance to "the new left" of the 1960s) among whom were Newt Gingrich and Vin Weber, joined by such older men of combat and initiative as Henry Hyde. Such leaders could well have been Democrats, if judged by their zest of ideas, their activism, their worldwide engagement, and their vi­ sion of a new future. They thought of the progressive left, from Mc­ Govemites to Johnson's "Great Society," as "the establishment." One could say they looked ahead to a Bastille Day of their own, except that being predominantly from the American heartland their models were hardly Jacobin but, on the contrary, Patrick Henry, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. They loved the American idea. They hated socialism


Choosing Presidents

in all its forms, including French utopianism. For example, Jack Kemp's focus was practical, and as mundane as tax cuts for the sake of economic opportunity among his constituents in 'Buffalo. He and his friends believed devoutly in what moderns call "democracy" but our founders called "republican government" ("of the people, by the peo­ ple, for the people"). They saw vividly that what makes poor people and workers love democracy is not the fact of voting every two or four years but the steady economic betterment of their families, through economic growth, opportunity, and incentives. This group might well have been called "commercial republicans," like the generation of our founders. They especially liked to quote John F. Kennedy-for his ac­ tivism, his optimism, his tax cuts, his "let's get America moving again," and his willingness to engage in "the long twilight struggle" with the forces of tyranny abroad. By 1980, it seemed that Jimmy Carter had given the Democratic Party the foreign policy of the progressive establishment known as "McGovernites." Moreover, he and his young assistants Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan had a quite different "establishment" in mind when they called themselves "anti-establishment." They did not like those parts of the Democratic Party I thought of as the admirable and dynamic center of the party: labor union leaders, big city "bosses," longtime elected Democrats in the congress and local government, Jewish and other ethnic organizations, "cold warriors," and the like. They preferred "the new politics" crowd, a bit left of center. There were a lot of movie stars and rock singers in that crowd. For such reasons, an observer could see that President Carter's hold on the evangelical "civil religion" was weak and that his hold on tradi­ tional Democrats was even weaker. I had written in 1978 that the con­ tests of the future for the soul of the country would concern realities close to the hearts of most Americans, but more and more neglected by the new politics and the stars of the media: such "square" values as work, farnily, and neighborhood. Ronald Reagan's pollster, Richard Wirthlin saw that piece (it had appeared in a series of articles by Democrats in the journal Common Sense), and tested it in public polling. The terms "work, family, neighborhood," and also "peace and strength," tested very well. Ronald Reagan made all five the leitmotif of his long-shot campaign in 1980. My son was at that time attending the Jesuit prep school in down­ town Washington, Gonzaga, alma mater of a great many Catholic sons of the Kennedy-Johnson veterans of the New Frontier and Great Soci-

Introduction to the Transaction Edition


ety. When the mock election at Gonzaga showed Reagan over Carter by (as I recall) 65-35, I judged that Reagan would win the general elec­ tion in a landslide. And he did. If a Democrat cannot win a majority of the Catholic vote, he's gone. In this book and in The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1972), I tried to show that the Catholic (and Jewish) ethnic vote is crucial to Democratic presidential campaigns. It is crucial because it is concen­ trated in the ten largest electoral-vote states; it consists of voters who vote regularly in disproportionately high percentages; and it is in sub­ stantial measure a swing vote, traditionally Democratic but by margins of anywhere from -5 to +50 points. In order to offset the large Republi­ can vote in predominantly Protestant rural areas, a Democratic candi­ date usually needs to come out of the large urban centers (like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Scranton Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania) in key states as such New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, with a plurality of 60-65 percent of the white ethnic vote. When Republic candidates in statewide elections (president, senators, governors) hold these Democratic pluralities close to 50 percent or below, they win easily. A second part to the argument needs stressing: my emphasis on the cultural, symbolic dimension. Many analysts properly stress the im­ portance of "pocketbook" issues and issues of war and peace. "Peace and Prosperity" are quite often decisive themes; but not always. John Kennedy turned the tide against both in 1960 by suggesting a new vi­ sion for the country, touching new possibilities in our culture, and stir­ ring new and dormant passions. Norman Mailer, among others, cele­ brated the rich imagery suddenly made available to the presidency and the nation by the election of a non-WASP descendent of immigrants to the nation's highest office-the outlaw suddenly being elected sheriff, he said. Ronald Reagan in 1980 was in an even stronger position than John Kennedy in 1960 to capture the nation's historic symbols. In his own person, he represented several generations of American history. One could associate him with the cowboy of the frontier; the small town hero become famous (George Gipp); the struggling rural poor of the Depression; the innocent American of 1940; the Hollywood hero of the wartime years; the anti-Communist union leader of the 1950s; and up­ and-coming spokesman for business (General Electric); the ordinary citizen elected governor, even president.

Choosing Presidents


Furthermore, the Democra� had been symbolically defining them­ selves along a new class axis ever since 1972, when Jesse Jackson 9 s "progressives" succeeded in displacing Mayor Daley (Mayor Daley!) from his customary place as leader of the Illinois delegation at the Democratic convention. Once Mayor Daley had to look on the Dernocrats from outside-in, many other traditional ethnic Democrats did the same. Jimmy Carter in 1976 had appealed to them as reinforcing old-time Democratic values-a naval commander, nuclear power specialist, small town businessman, and Sunday school teacher­ but by 1980 he looked even more wimpish than many had feared McGovern would be eight years earlier. One thing was sure, Jimmy Carter in office did not look kingly. He fell short of the majesty that Americans, lacking a king, necessarily invest in the office of the presidency. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, grasped easily the distinction between the two presidential roles: bearer of the symbolic weight traditionally invested in kings and prime ministers. He wore the latter role lightly, choosing with care a certain few priorities and delegating to others the daily managerial tasks. Accepting his role as keeper of the nation 9 s sense of itself, the chief articulator of the symbols through which a huge, diverse, and sprawling population understands itself as one, and acts as one on the stage of the world, Reagan approached his new of­ fice with imagination, energy, and zest. He quickly reached a deep and lasting identification with the people. Over against the experts, he was a people s president. Clare Booth Luce noted from his example that the advantage of a president who has been an actor is that he knows the difference between box office and the critics. "If he has the former, he can be kind to the latter." It is hard to think of an American president more passionately despised by the nation s artistic, professional, and journalistic elites-and yet more successful in getting his way v1ith the Congress and in holding the affections of the people. His enemies often tried to explain his success away by ascribing it to "illusions" he wove to deceive the public, a "dream" that he induced in them. Since they themselves claimed "the people" as warrant for their own concept of "progress," his enemies were doubly disarmed. He not only took the people away from them; he did it with a smile, a story, and an affecting bob of his head. This book tries to explain the route to such symbolic power as Ronald Reagan attained, making his enemies teeth grind. He under­ stood American symbols in their variety and in their vitality. He identi9



Introduction to the Transaction Edition



fled himself with these symbols guilelessly, and he expressed them not only convincingly, but stirringly. He awakened in old symbols echoes that had for some years fallen out of fashion. He reminded people of the high regard for such symbols our forebears had shown, and he deftly sketched a vision of the power they would gain in the future. He was especially right about that last point. After the Great Revolution of Eastern Europe in 1989, hundreds of millions would affirm that they owed their inspiration, and their chance at liberty, more to Ronald Rea­ gan and to Margaret Thatcher than to any other humans. Reagan's speeches on democracy in London and in Moscow had electrified con­ sciences and awakened imaginations. His grasp of the concept of "dirty hands," which I try to articulate in chapter 33 below, encouraged him to supply arguments of military power (SDI, the Pershing missiles, etc.) that captured the attention of President Gorbachev, the KGB, and the Soviet military, even as he supplied "reasons of the heart" to those he persisted in describing publicly as prisoners of the evil empire. Far from contradicting his predictions, the sudden liberation of Eastern Europe in the autumn of 1989 fulfilled Reagan's much-derided comment, made when he had been president barely a month, that com­ munism was about to be discarded on the ash heap of history. Reagan declared already in 1981-to much tittering among the learned-that the world was witnessing the last sad chapter in communism's rapid de­ cline. Passions about Reagan still run too high in the academic and jour­ nalistic cornmunities for a just assessment of his administration. My own opinion is that his reputation will grow in stature beginning a decade or so from now. What needs to be stressed in this introduction, rather, is the extent to which the Reagan years confirmed my theory about the power of symbols in American politics. There is a "geography of the soul" to be learned in understanding this continental nation. Sets of symbols that "work" in one place seem in another off-key. To communicate credibly with Americans about America-its past, its present, its future-one must grasp a good many secrets of this symbolic geography. Moreover, it is wrong (it may in the long run be impossible) to fool the people by ma­ nipulating these symbols insincerely; no one can fool all the American people all of the time. Candor is a highly prized American virtue; can­ dor leads to a love of understatement and a little bit of "aw, shucks." It allows for either mutually acceptable exaggeration or mutually toler-


Choosing Presidents

ated imprecisions-but only as lopg as the speaker stands ready to deal with the facts in due course and in the proper forum. Americans are willing to extend intellectual credit, but are certain to insist at the end of the day on hardract. In terms of record-breaking years of economic growth and the victory of communism, Reagan delivered the big facts. He did not even pretend to master the detail; he got on with the main lines of the story about where America ought to be going. Much of the world nodded in agreement and followed. He may be particularly proud of the torrent of nations that moved from being dictatorships as of Jan­ uary 20, 1981, to becoming democracies by the same date ten years later. More than a score did so, more than a dozen in Latin America alone. Reagan understood the highly symbolic role of the American presi­ dency, and used that power to its full measure. He was also a skillful bargainer in political negotiation. He had a knack of knowing when to walk away and when to compromise-and even how to compromise while seeming to stand utterly firm on principle. Those who thought of him as rigidly "ideological" were constantly surprised by his tactical political skills. He could defuse combustible passions with a timely story, told for the umpteenth time. He could play hard ball. In negoti�­ tion, he could walk in a garden, warm his hands at a fireplace, smile and nod across a table. He was not afraid to pick up his wares and abruptly leave the country, as he did in Iceland when Gorbachev tried to pull a fast one on him regarding the Strategic Defense Initiative. He was a formidable player in the game of politics. Yet it was in speaking to and for American history that he was at his best. President Reagan did not try much to persuade, cajole, jawbone, or armtwist (as Lyndon Johnson did) or even to impress by a studied elo­ quence (as John F. Kennedy did). Rather, he tried to give voice to American history, to be the persona of the nation, to speak for national memory and dream. He did not so much look into the eyes of his audi­ ence to find a way to convince u�; he was not exactly working on us. Rather, he was trying to summarize the lessons learned since the days of Madison, Jefferson, Washington and Lincoln, FDR and JFK. He tried to discern whither destiny was now calling the nation. In this sense, his speech was disembodied, greater than himself, greater even than our generation. If there were a Hegelian Geist for each nation, Reagan would have been trying to allow the spirit of America to speak through him. He loved the American past. He loved the American vi­ sion. He wished to make himself open to its power, to be lived in by it.

Introduction to the Transaction Edition


Perhaps this is why Reagan always sounded both so guileless and so impersonal at the same time, so genuine and authentic while at the same time not at all a deep or learned man. ("What you see is what you get," those who knew him well often said.) He made the best of what he was. To be sure, many journalists and academics never trusted Ronald Reagan. Most of the American public did. Reagan understood the sources of his own power quite well. He ar­ ticulated them in his Farewell Address: "I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation­ from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I'll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense." To which Lou Cannon, the journalist who followed Reagan for more years than any other, added: There may have been more to it than that. Walter Lippmann once said of Charles de Gaulle that his greatness was not because de Gaulle was in France but because France was in de Gaulle. Similarly, the greatness of Reagan was that he carried a shining vi­ sion of America inside him. He had brought that vi­ sion with him from Dixon and learned in Hollywood and on the GE circuit to play the role of the whole­ some American who would set things right. It was a most natural role. Reagan may not have been a great president, but he was a great American who held a compelling vision of his country. (President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, 1991) Observation of Reagan in the presidency, therefore, has made me believe that the symbolic power of the kingly office can actually be taken further by a skillful president than I had thought; but also that it is not likely again to be taken as far as Reagan took it. The reason for the last judgment is that Ronald Reagan did enjoy a rare innocence, al­ most that of the child-nymph sketched in various ways by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who enjoys an almost inhuman absence of moral perplexi­ ties, an almost preternatural simplicity of soul. This can be a great as­ set, as in Reagan's case, but it cannot be common. Besides, only in the


Choosing Presidents

peculiar circumstances of Reagcµi � s unusual professional commitment to a long life of symbol-making (the profession of acting, the silver screen) could such a personality have acquired �such rich symbolic content. His persohal as well as his professional life had inculcated in him an unaffected rural patriotism and a love for a certain stratum of American experience, that of a poor boy in the country beneath a wideopen sky. For there to be a Reagan there had to be, to put it metaphorically, an exceedingly improbable conjunction of the ele­ ments. Before Reagan, there had been considerable speculation (after Nixon, Ford, and Carter) that the presidential office had become too weak; that no one was likely to be elected for a second term; that the Constitution should be changed to allow for one six-year term; that the office was too big for any one man to fill, given the conflicting wants and desires of the public. Reagan rather effortlessly gave the lie to these opinions. So far as the intellectual arguments of this book go, I have let the text stand as it was in 1974. Since that time, my own political views have slowly changed because so many of my earlier convictions, then characterized as slightly left-of-center, did not hold up well against reality. The War on Poverty, for example, was a great success for the elderly; but, if it did not hasten, it did little to arrest the rapid deteriora­ tion of family life among younger cohorts in the welfare population. No one can say that young families among the poor are in better shape in 1991 than in 1965. Similarly, despite far more money spent on edu­ cation during that period few could say that American primary and sec­ ondary education ended that period in good health. From 1967 onwards I stood among those who protested against the war in Vietnam, contributing with Robert McAfee Brown and Rabbi Abraham Heschel to a short volume Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience which had a modest influence in energizing the religious community against the v,ar. Later, as I list�hed to t.1-ie tales of the million or so "boat people" who fled from tl1e communist horror installed in South Vietnam, and read stories of rape, murder, and drowning on the high seas, I awakened with the blood of the South Vietnamese on my hands. As I had written in chapter 33 below, even with good intentions, people who want to act morally become involved inevitably in the moral am­ biguities of history and end up with "dirty hands." Those of us in part responsible for the disgraceful way in which the war in Vietnam ended, and for the miseries that then befell the good

Introduction to the Transaction Edition


people of South Vietnam, did not escape having dirty hands, even bloody hands. Moreover, as I read the diaries of former members of the Viet Cong guerrillas, diaries that depicted how they had been duped by their masters in Hanoi, I saw that we in America had been duped as well. Published memoirs of high officials in the North Vietnamese government confirmed the contempt in which we in the peace move­ ment were held in Hanoi, and how easy they found it to use us against the honorable purposes of our own country. But even before learning of these new facts and perspectives, even while acting against the war in good faith, based on what I then knew, I realized that each war tends to teach people a lesson inappropriate for the next war. The "lessons of Munich" had led us too impatiently into the jungles of Indochina; the "lessons of Vietnam" would ill prepare us for the growing strategic military power of the USSR. Vast American military stores were abandoned in Vietnam and, cutting military bud­ gets year by year by year, the nation for a time lost heart for its own de­ fense. In this respect, the tragic vision, the loss of innocence, and "the new dark civil faith" I wrote of in the last chapters of this book became even more meaningful to me in later years. Because of Vietnam, I be­ came more, not less, anti-Communist and rejoiced to see the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That year, indeed, became one of the great vintage years of world history, the year that communism col­ lapsed in the world's esteem. In reviewing this text, I am less happy with chapter 32, "Reforming the Presidency," than with any other in the book. Of the four sugges­ tions for reform I made in that chapter, the first two still make sense to me, but the last two do not. The third, it now strikes me, made a rather weak point: that the president's cabinet should always, perhaps by force of law, include a proportion of members of the opposition party. To be sure, presidents often appoint to their cabinet one or more members of the other party, so the idea is not totally without precedent. Still, it is not a good idea. When one party controls one or both houses of Congress, a president of the other party is already constrained to take its views into account. I have learned during a dozen years in Wash­ ington that it is tough enough for a president to give his administration clear direction, without building yet more disunity into it. Scratch that idea. The fourth idea-to divide the presidency into two separate offices­ still has merit as a pedagogical exercise by which to grasp the crucial



Choosing Presidents

differences between the presidept as personification of the nation and the president as political leader. In the real world, however, it would be a grievous error. As political parties have declined� in power, presidents more and more depend on their symbolic role for the accrual of politi­ cal support; they have few enough avenues to accrue it. Meanwhile, the American system of checks and balances is so thorough that the dan­ gers of governmental gridlock and legislative paralysis are quite pro­ nounced. Thus, having earlier been struck by the strength of the presidential office, many Americans have become aware of its relative weakness, even when a president is enormously popular. Twenty years ago, many of us were perhaps too impressed by the presidential power exercised by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon against our own wishes, espe­ cially with regard to Vietnam. The grave weaknesses of the office be­ came apparent in the resignation of Richard Nixon (which occurred within months of the first publication of this book). The just but brief interregnum of Gerald Ford-who modestly introduced himself to the country as "a Ford, not a Lincoln"-and the appearance of weakness often given by Jimmy Carter contributed to the perception of an office in decline. As I have said above, Reagan changed all that. Finally, I should say a word about the concept of "civil religion." I do not mean by this a religion like Judaism, Islam, or Christianity. I mean, rather, a dimension of citizenship that encourages a more than pragmatic relation to the state, a relation that the ancient Romans called pietas. This does not imply that the state is God or even a rival of God. (Like many other worldly things, however, the state can be made into an idol.) It means that citizens are grateful to the state for securing their rights and making civil life possible. Through it citizens remember those who gave their lives to protect their rights, as well as the great events of a common history. By it ties of memory and love are added to ties of self-interest. With it, citizens may come to fell mystic bonds of friendship toward one another, ,-including ties even to their departed dead and posterity yet to come. All this is quite natural to human be­ ings, whom the ancient Greeks described as "political animals" or "city-state animals," animals possessed of logos, reasonable speech, and therefore memory and hope. Civil religion is not a matter of supernatural faith or grace or redemption or eternal life. It is merely an appropriate movement of gratitude, reverence, and duty in the hearts of citizens, in return for all they gain from civil society. They gain, above all, their dignity as free persons and the protection of their rights. They

Introduction to the Transaction Edition


gain as well a system designed to promote the general welfare of all. It is by no means foolish of them to count these gifts as blessings. Thus, it is not inconsistent for those who observe the appropriate pietas toward their nation to hold it under the transcendent judgment of "the terrible swift sword" of the Almighty. Civil religion is judged by traditional religion: "one nation under God." To make civil religion a substitute for God would be idolatry. But to respect its proper and useful role is both fitting and just.

Michael Novak


The author is grateful to several publishers for permission to quote from the following works : James David Barber, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1972. Robert N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America" which first appeared in Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston, Winter 1967, Religion in A merica. H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1949. Gunnar Myrdal, An A merican Dilemma, Vol. I, Harper & Row, New York, 1 962. Ray Price, memorandum of November 28, 1967. Subject: "Recommenda­ tions for General Strategy from Now through Wisconsin." Woodrow Wilson, Constitutional Government in the United States, Co­ lumbia University Press, New York, 1 908. Bob Dylan, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," © 1963 M. Witmark & Sons. All rights reserved. Used by permission of \Varner Bros. Music. John Lennon, "Imagine," © 1 97 1 Northern Songs Ltd. All rights for the United States of America, Canada, Mexico and The Philippines controlled by Maclen Music, Inc. c/o ATV Music Group. All rights reserved. Used by permission. International copyright secured. Peter Yarrow, "Weave Me the Sunshine," © 1 972 Mary Beth Music, 75 East 55th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022. All rights reserved. Used by permission.


The God-King "The American people have created almost a God-King in the office of the presidency." -Senator Edward R. Brooke (R.-Mass. )

This book was conceived in the fall of 1970, long before activi­ ties symbolized by Watergate had come to light like insect canals beneath a rock. I was working as a writer for Sargent Shriver, supporting Democratic candidates for the Congress in some 3 7 states. The audiences I then observed-and had to write for-lived "worlds apart'' from one another: law students in a hall at Yale, and Polish working men in a living room in Baltimore; ranch hands in Wyoming and Spanish-surname crowds in Albuquerque; a union breakfast in Pittsburgh, and cocktail parties at elegant clubs in Kansas City, Palm Beach, and Santa Barbara; a room full of rebellious Vista volunteers in Washington, and a politi­ cally besieged black crowd in Oakland. Nothing in my education




Choosing Presidents '


had quite prepared me for how diffeient Americans are from one another. A sentence from George Reedy's lucid book, The Twilight of the Presidency,...__ stuck in my memory: "The most important, and least examined, problem of the presidency is that of maintaining contact with reality." I felt exhilarated that fall, alive with the staggering variety of the nation's life. Pres­ dent Nixon's "law and order" campaign seemed to me out of touch with many people's real feelings; it was too sim­ plistic and too mean-spirited, and it failed. Reedy wrote about the world "inside" the White House. I wanted to write about "outside" reality, the presidency as it actually operates among and is perceived in the different worlds in which Americans live. I began with two convictions : that the presidency is the na­ tion's most central religious symbol, and that American civiliza­ tion is best understood as a set of secular religious systems. The drama of the last six months has lent my thesis public demonstra­ tion I did not expect. "The hopeful view of Watergate," writes Anthony Lewis of The New York Times, "is that it represents only a personal aber­ ration in a still sound political structure. The fault, then, would lie with Richard Nixon, not in the presidential institution." His own view is different: "The danger goes back long before the pres­ ent crisis of confidence. It lies in confiding too many of our hopes and fears in the President. . . . We shall not cure the deeper disease of Watergate until we get over the cult of personality and return to the American system of law and constitutional order." But our problem is not the� cult of personality. It will not be solved by a return to law and constitutional order. (Moralists of the Left only yesterday denounced the inadequacies of the Ameri­ can system; now they outdo one another in conservative constitu­ tional sentiment. For a decade they demanded a strong presi­ dency; now some desire a weak one. Should one think the Left unprincipled-or teachable? ) Closer to the heart of our prob­ lem is the cult of moralism : on the Right, the cult of America;



on the Left, the cult of "change." Americans treat America as a religion. Hatred for political opponents waxes theological. Like separate islands, the political religions of the land are connected through a single office. The president is the one pontiff bridging all. Such an office imposes on him more than mere pragmatic functions. The Constitution pays the symbolic functions of the president too little heed. Against his sym­ bolic power, it provides too little countervailing balance. Many Americans wish the presidency were businesslike : flat and literal and unmysterious. Such is the preference of a prac­ tical people. But the presidency conveys immense symbolic pow­ ers over "rational" people which they may be loathe to admit. These powers cannot be eliminated. They can, at best, be re­ distributed. To talk about the presidency with realism, we must explore symbolic worlds we ordinarily skirt. We come, neces­ sarily, to the edges of theological reflection. I . What symbolic values of the American people allow us to speak of "saving the presidency," of "confidence" and "faith" in the presidential office, of the "sacrednessn of that office, and of "trust" in it? These words seem appropriate to religion, not to a secular state. 2 . How deeply does the personality of a president shape our personal response to national life and our own inner life? 3 . How does one distinguish morality in the president from moralism? To what extent must our king have "dirty hands"? How does one distinguish genuine symbols from "image­ making"? 4. Should the nation prepare itself for a fundamental re­ vision of the Constitution of the United States in order to protect itself from the presidency? It may be idle to approach our prob­ lems as though they are administraJive problems, subject to the adjustment of a few procedural techniques. Basic symbols-an ap­ proach to life-may have to be altered. This book explores the symbolic geography of national politics. Its focal point is the presidency. Its illustrative materials come mainly from the presidential campaign of 1972. From a practical point of view, it may be useful for political leaders who seek symbols powerful among the people.


Choosing Presidents '

From a theoretical point of, view, this book may encourage greater attention to symbol-making in politics. It may help to balance the merely pragmatic tendency of American thought. It may also suggest a fresh and potent point of view for the dis­ cussion of ethical questions. Specifically, it may help to clarify the nature of "civil religion." A few words may illustrate how inextricably these themes are intertwined. Many practical persons felt betrayed by Watergate. They were dismayed by not being able to trust the president, to have con­ fidence in his words, to rely on his self-restraint. That we must learn to become cynical about the presidency and ring it round with restrictions has raised the specter of heavy costs. Only when the symbols of trust, decency, and restraint have broken down do we realize how practical and inexpensive they had been. "Symbolic realities" are structures of human consciousness ef­ fective in human perception and action. These structures may be institutionalized in offices, performances, or rituals. They shape the psyches of persons. A courtroom, for example, institution­ alizes acts of testimony, assessment of evidence, and approxi­ mate justice. H witnesses lie, the institution can be frustrated. H persons adhere to key symbols, "improper" conduct is ruled out. H they do not, other constraints must be supplied. When you can rely on people not to steal library books, you do not have to pay the salary of a guard. When you can rely on presi­ dents to tell the truth to the public, you do not have to spend weeks, months, and years tracking down evidence to unmask their lies. Those symbolic realities that constitute morality increase the frequency of acts of honesty, courage, freedom, Justice, and com­ munity. Such realities have only a fragile hold upon our psyches. Thus, practical men frequently discount them. Often we are ob­ liged to live as though we cannot depend upon the honesty, loy­ alty, understanding, and cooperation of others. "We must learn not to trust people," we tell ourselves. "If you want a job done, do it yourself." We tailor our expectations to the level of human practice. For this reason, thinking that follows moral symbols and thinking that follows practical experience are often at odds. Men should act like brothers, should trust one another and co-



operate, should try to be reasonable. But in fact, frequencies of self-serving conduct are rather high. "Morality" is based on humans as they are in fact; "moral­ ism" is based on humans as they would be "if only. . . ." In the United States, moralism has a long history. Ameri­ cans of all persuasions preach incessantly. Moral exhortation is a national style. Even our hedonists itch to convert our puri­ tans. (Playboy is presented as "liberation.") Moralism promises excessive benefits for private pieties. Yet alongside this tradi­ tion, and even in the depths of it, a strong moral tradition calls humans, despite their faults, to simple, plain speech and straight­ forward honesty. On this latter and rather high standard for human behavior part of the American way of life-as distinct, say, from that of Mexico, or France, or Italy, or 'Indonesia, or other lands-is built. Perhaps naively so. We expect a degree of honesty from our leaders that people in some other lands seemingly do not. They tolerate a wider range of authoritative cover-up, administrative evasion, and even "official truth" than we do-not that we ha,ve less cover­ up, simply that we keep watch on our leaders in this respect. Foreign commentators on Watergate frequently remarked upon this difference in national character. Americans overseas had to explain that the public reaction to Watergate was not simply a manifestation of a rather narrow puritanism. Our national life is built upon a kind of moralism-a dubious blessing; but a blessing nonetheless. For within the excesses and ambiguities of moralism lie moral possibilities. Learning how to disengage morality from moralism-how to avoid the corrup­ tions of the latter and how to deepen the realism of the form�r -is one of the tasks of our maturity. Americans have high symbolic expectations of the presidency. Violation of these expectations brings retribution. After barely a week of revelations in early 1973, Richard Nixon fell from the height of presidential power to the threat of impeachment. His physical and material power did not change; but symbolically he was discredited. We are, we like to think, "the last, best hope of mankind." We are, we once thought, entrusted with this planet's fairest



Choosing Presidents I

dream: a n�w world, a new Eden. ·The twentieth would be the "American century," during which an almost chosen people would lead mankind to unprecedented moral heights. Our self­ understanding has been more than only factual. We have en­ tertained extraordinary hopes. Surely we may hold that the United States is at the threshold of a new maturity, that the nation can, if it wishes, admit into consciousness a sense of its own capacity for evil, an awareness of the tragic quality of life, a respect for limits. These are, I believe, the sole hope for a truly radical and liberal assault on such social progress as is open to us on this planet. At various times, five persons helped me to gather a vast set of files on the election of 1972 and accumulated texts on the presidency: Virginia Perrell, Eileen Zanar, Kathleen Ken­ nedy, Mildred Gorman, and Jacqueline SlateL Judy Lally and Dori Walther typed most of the manuscript-again and again. Martin Marty, David Tracy, Peter H. Wood, Robert McAfee Brown, Peter Bellerman, and Richard Fox read parts of this manuscript in earlier drafts and saved me from many errors. One important symbol of modem politics is "cornmitment"commitment to exhausting work. Such commitment has real ef­ fects upon one's family. Because of the campaign of 1972, dur­ ing which I worked the month of November ( 197 1 ) for Ed­ mund Muskie, throughout the primaries as a journalist, and from August onward on the staff of George McGovern and Sar­ gent Shriver, our newborn daughter, Jana Marya, came into the home of an absentee father. Compared to her, politics and its symbols seem unreal. Yet the shadowy world of politics is our reality, too, and so taking politics seriously is, in some poor way, also an act of love for her. Bayville, New York August 5, 1973

Part One

PRI EST, PROPHET, KI NG We, too, the enlightened Americans, feel the need of myth and mystery in national life-of magic parchments like the Declaration of Inde­ pendence, of shrines like Plymouth and the Alamo, of slogans . . . of hymns . . . of heroics . . . of heroes. . . . And who fashioned the myth? Who are the most satisfying of our folk heroes? With whom is associated a wonderful web of slogans and shrines and heroics? The answer, plainly, is the six Presidents I have pointed to most proudly. Each is an authentic folk hero, each a symbol of some vir­ tue or dream especially dear to Americans. Together they make up al­ most half of the company of American giants, for who except ChrisI


Choosing Presidents

topher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Boone, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas A. Edison in real life, Deerslayer and Ragged Dick in fiction, and Paul Bunyan and the Lonesome Cowboy in myth can chal­ -Clinton Rossiter lenge them for immortality? The American Presidency

1 Sym bolic Realism

Every four years, Americans elect a king-but not only a king, also a high priest and a prophet. It does not matter that we are a practical and sophisticated people, no longer ( we think) influenced by symbols, myths, or rituals. To what our president represents, we react with passion. The president of the United States is no mere manager of an insurance firm. The way he lives affects our image of ourselves. His style and his tastes weigh upon our spirits. Eisenhower en­ couraged a "silent" generation, Kennedy an "activist" decade. Nixon at first made some feel solid and appreciative and others, even in the beginning, heavy and ashamed. Intimate and personal feelings are affected by our experience of various presidents. The symbolic power of the president is real. Ten million po­ lice officers, heads of boards of education, lawyers, judges, real­ tors, union leaders, and local officials calibrate their daily de­ cisions according to the support or the resistance they expect 3


Choosing Presidents

from the White House. W}lat will the Justice Department do, or fail to do? The president is able to make his own views felt in every town and village of the nation, by compulsion and enforcement, by 'imitation and antipathy. On the local level, if ultimately one expects support far up the line, great risks can be taken. If one is left to one's own resources merely, one must confront the local balance of powers. Some speak of the "moral leadership" of the presidency as though what we need is a moral man out in fr