By Donella Meadows
–January 1, 1987–
Watching the nation writhe over another crisis of the Presidency, I am reminded of a chilling story called “We Love Glenda So Much” by the South American writer Julio Cortazar.
Glenda is a movie star. Everyone loves her. Her fans know her films by heart; they study her every gesture and word.
Of course Glenda has bad moments. In some frames she looks less than glamorous, especially as she grows older. You can find fault with a speech here and there. An occasional gesture falls flat.
But film can be edited. Every image can be altered, if you’re willing the take the time to do it. Glenda’s fans, because they love her so much, take the time. They acquire master copies of her films and edit them just a little, just to show their idol at her best.
They set up a worldwide network to replace all copies of her films with their revised versions. It keeps them busy, especially since the films are re-edited now and then to make them even better.
More and more people come to love Glenda.
The real Glenda, however, becomes a problem. When she makes personal appearances, she isn’t quite the Glenda everyone loves so much. She is looking older. Sometimes she’s a little awkward or ill-tempered. Her fans persuade her to stay home. Eventually they even convince her not to make any more films.
After a long, lovely time, during which everyone enjoys the wonderful Glenda on the screen, the real Glenda gets bored. She comes out of retirement and schedules a new film and a series of public appearances.
The fans are horrified. They hold emergency meetings to decide what to do, though in fact they know. Because they love Glenda so much, they have to eliminate her.
The story ends there.
Ronald Reagan isn’t our first Glenda, but in many ways he’s our best. He’s tall and dark, with movie-star shoulders. His voice is Presidential, warm, assuring. He’s enthusiastic, upbeat, commanding, funny, folksy. Until recently he gave every appearance of being in control. He was making America strong and secure, as a President should do, so the rest of us can relax and go about our business.
We loved him, though it was never a secret that a sizable staff constantly edited him to make him into the President of our dreams.
This is also not the first time we have been shaken by the revelation that the President we love is very different from the all-too-human being in the White House. It isn’t the first time the atmosphere has shifted, so that one day no one dares say anything bad about the President because everyone loves him, and the next day we all admit that we kind of had our doubts all along.
You’d think we’d learn. But something deep and ancient within us yearns for a wonderful leader, one who will protect and uplift us, be better than us, show us the way. When we don’t have such a leader, we make someone into one. When he turns out not to fit our fantasies, we blame him instead of ourselves.
The European countries wisely retained the old institution of royalty when they took up democracy. They separated the Glenda job, the National Symbol, noble, inspiring, and semi-fictitious, from the job of running the government. A citizen can criticize the Prime Minister and still be considered patriotic, but not the Queen. It’s a happy combination, satisfying both the craving for royal perfection and the necessity for democratic dissent.
We, however, load both the symbolism and the burden of government onto just one person. Then we confuse the two roles. We take criticism of a policy as an attack on the very nation. If the President fails, we entangle the need to correct him with the need to affirm our faith in the system he symbolizes. We fall all over ourselves trying to chastise the President while defending the Presidency.
The President, being human, is likely to fail, especially since we have evolved a selection process that emphasizes his symbolic role rather than his ability to govern. We judge him by his ability to act out our national illusions, and if he’s accommodating, he does that and puts the government in the hands of people we have never heard of, until they start pleading the Fifth Amendment before Congressional committees.
Are we going to go on this way, through cycles of admiration, revelation and disappointment? Well, maybe so, since we’re not about to institute a Royal Family.
The only alternative I can see is for us to grow beyond our need for a Glenda. Maybe we can accept that we will always be governed by human beings who are complex mixtures of magnificence and fallibility. Maybe we can reject the image-making at election time and focus on the real managerial and moral qualities of the candidates. Maybe we can recognize that we don’t need a perfect leader to express the strength of our nation; that a nation’s strength is not in its leaders anyway, but in the maturity, productivity, and wisdom of its people.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987