Campaign after campaign, we hear the promises that stuff will get fixed. Health care. Washington. Spending. The culture of mistrust. Unemployment. Education. We want stuff that is broken to be fixed. But somehow, after inauguration, it never turns out as we…or he…had hoped.
George H. W. Bush famously said, “Read my lips…no new taxes,” and then raised taxes. Obama promised Gitmo would be closed by one year after his inauguration, but it is not closed yet. FDR, however, kept many of his New Deal promises, to provide unemployment insurance, old age insurance, and to repeal prohibition. He had also promised to balance the Federal budget, but gave up on that promise pretty quickly. LBJ became president unexpectedly, upon the assassination of JFK, but then pronounced a War on Poverty. That hasn’t been won. Neither have subsequent Presidents’ Wars on Drugs, Crime, or Terrorism. Lyndon Johnson was of course derailed by a disastrous war that he inherited, the progress of which he lied about, in the hopes he could somehow fix it. Which he couldn’t. Nixon came along, promising “Peace With Honor,” and that didn’t really work either. But Nixon did keep the promise of extending the vote to 18-year-0lds.
I’m sure you can come up with dozens of other examples of things fixed/not fixed from the pages of our history. I’ll bet way more things not fixed than otherwise.
Trying to fix stuff as President is a difficult task. I do not believe we are totally honest about how limited the President’s control really is. I do believe fictional presidencies can give us a clear picture of the nature of these limitations and pitfalls, and my favorite fictional presidency of all time is that of Merkin Muffley, in Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
(Spoiler alert: If you have not seen this movie, go watch it first, and then come back and read the rest of this post.)
The movie came out in 1964, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy’s assassination. In it, an insane General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), fearing communist plots against America, launches a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Naturally, President Muffley (Peter Sellers) tries to fix the situation in the most direct, aboveboard, and ethical manner possible. He invites the Soviet Ambassador into the War Room. He calls up Soviet Premier Dmitri Kissoff and apologizes profusely (in a delicious mid-western-mid-atlantic accent) for the error, and offers target information to them, so that they can defend themselves, as well as attempting to call back the attack. This should fix it, right?
Turns out, no. Premier Kissoff is a bit drunk, and despondent. Turns out the Soviet Union has developed a Doomsday machine, and if a single bomb drops in the U.S.S.R., a massive retaliation will occur. So call our planes back, right? Except that Mad General Ripper is the only one with the code to call back the attack. Dr. Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers) helps overcome this problem, and the bombers are successfully called back, except for one.
Major T.J. “King” Kong’s (Slim Pickens) radio equipment was damaged by Soviet anti-aircraft, and so he does not receive the order to abort the attack. Although the bomb bay was damaged as well, he manages to open it manually, and releases the bomb, and rides it down, and achieves mutually assured destruction.
So President Muffley was prevented from fixing the problem of an unintended nuclear attack by the following:
1. Craziness (General Ripper)
2. Drunkeness (Kissoff)
3. Equipment failure (Radio equipment)
4. Equipment success (Doomsday machine)
5. Openess (President reveals target info, possibly resulting in damage to bomber radio.)
6. Secrecy (Doomsday machine kept secret from Soviet Ambassador)
7. Failure to Communicate (resulting from all the above)
And I haven’t even touched upon the balance of powers institute by our Founders, without which the President–any president–would be both far more efficient and far more potentially deadly. What I want depends on who is in office. When my guy is in, I want him to be masterful. When their guy is in, I want him to be quashed.
The office of President is called the most powerful in the world. Maybe. It also has its moments of utter futility. The President and everyone tasked with running our country are human beings who are occasionally crazy, drunk, incompetent, dishonest, too honest, or otherwise idiotic. Sometimes they are all of these, and yet still believe they are right.
Watching Dr. Strangelove makes me more sympathetic to the President, whoever he (no she yet) turns out to be. Poor President Muffley. You proved incompetent, but you tried.
Thanks to the IMDb website for refreshing my memory on this wonderful movie. If you haven’t seen it, do. It is still remarkably relevant.
Happy President’s Day.