By Donella Meadows
–January 21, 1993—-
It’s frightening to watch, every four or eight years, how we turn one of ourselves into a president.
At first, while he’s struggling toward the head of his party, we search out his dirty laundry. We blow up every rumor, no matter how unsavory its source, into a topic of national discussion. We view each aspirant with undiluted skepticism. This guy? President? Naaaaah! He doesn’t act like a president. We forget that we are the ones who bestow the power that permits someone to act like a president.
Through the campaign we not only believe all candidates to be liars, we MAKE them liars. We demand that they tell us only what we want to hear, though we don’t believe a word of it. We grade them for their ability to play this charade.
On the day after the election, we transform the loser into Nobody and the winner into a combination of Elvis, Abraham Lincoln, and God. We smear glamour all over him; it rubs off on anyone who has ever been to Arkansas. We still want gossip, but now we want it only good. We have to make a myth and make it fast. Photographers capture images of his home town, his morning jogs, his cat.
He is a disappointment if he doesn’t produce BIG NEWS EVERY DAY. (What, a whole week has gone by and he hasn’t chosen his Cabinet?)
He is not yet president, but we expect him to bear our standards for us — animal rights, abortion rights, gay rights. The food industry advises him on what he should eat and the fashion industry on what he should wear. The broccoli growers pray for more enlightenment this time around. We examine everything he does for its symbolism — where he stops for coffee, where he sends his kid to school, whether he listens to his wife. Rather than stride forth with our causes ourselves, we hand them over to him and complain if he doesn’t respond with sufficient enthusiasm.
He still can’t make real news, so the media tell him what to do, speculate on what he is about to do, and predict how history will assess what he does. We listen to non-news about our not-yet-President and try to see him amidst the fluff.
We build a bubble of importance and protection around him and then notice that he’s getting insular. We observe with sudden disapproval that this man, who has been running for power for years, spending millions of dollars in the process, has rich and powerful friends. We haven’t got him up on the pedestal yet, but we’re already knocking him down.
We’ve just about got him where we want him, though. He’s the white knight carrying our flag into battle, the wise and powerful father protecting us from harm, and the scapegoat for all our grievances. By inauguration day we expect him to feel everything we feel and to express it with just the right throb in the throat, but never to lose emotional control. He must know all the answers and deliver them in words of no more than two syllables. From his predecessor, who disappointed us badly (as they all do), we have reclaimed our hopes, fears, dreams, hurts, and resentments, and projected them onto him. So have the Haitians and the Somalians, the Bosnians and the Chinese, the Israelis and the Europeans.
The lunatics among us arethinking about how to shoot him, the intellectuals are waiting for his every slip. Saddam Hussein is ready to test him, and so is Bob Dole. The Republicans will interpret everything he does with bile, the Democrats with honey, except for the establishment economist Democrats, who have already written him off for not appointing enough of them to high places. He will not be permitted to sniffle, to stumble, to lose his place or his cool, to tell the whole truth, to tell a lie, or to vomit. Everywhere he goes he will be followed by cameras, a protective shield of armed men, and a little box that can blow up the world.
We’ve made him into a president, the person to whom we can hand the power of 250 million industrious people on a rich continent with a lucky history. If he fumbles, we will blame only him. At his inauguration the crowd greets him with signs that read, “It’s all up to you now, Bill,” as if it weren’t up to any of us.
It’s an impossible load we put on him. Yes, of course, he asked for it. Anyone who asks for it, deserves it, I suppose. But I keep hoping, after more than 200 years of playing at democracy, that we might grow up and learn that, though we choose one of us to stand out front, he is never more than an ordinary, fallible mortal. The power and the responsibility are ours, not his.
A year ago when Bill Clinton was cruising around New Hampshire, my friends were dazzled by his intelligence and energy and charm. “Watch out,” I told them. “Don’t get your hopes up. He’s human, he’s power-hungry, he’s a politician. He’ll break our hearts.”
In return, by expecting more from him than he can ever deliver and by blaming him for not delivering it, we’ll break his.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993