Fifty-four years ago today John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas. In his inaugural address fewer than three years earlier, he had inspired many of my generation with the words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Those words sound almost laughably naïve these days as we watch a tax bill being composed of customized offerings to various interest groups, particularly large donors.
This spectacle of government for sale is hardly new: Ulysses S. Grant, a good man who knew a thing or two about running a large organization, was no match for the venal corporate titans and corrupt politicians – including two of his own brothers-in-law – who permanently scarred both his presidency and his reputation. A century later, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., wrote of Lyndon Johnson’s protégé (who died on Sunday), “Bobby Baker’s Senate is composed of crooks, drunks and lechers, marching from bar to boudoir to bank, concerned mainly with lining their pockets and satisfying their appetites.”
We used to at least pretend that the agencies of government are not interchangeable with the people who temporarily hold them. I first heard the phrase, “Even if you don’t respect the man, you should respect the office,” during Richard Nixon’s presidency. Now, however, we have a president for whom the institutional aspects of the office appear to have no significance, for whom everything is personal.
His effort to create a cult of personality is what the founders feared above all. Our Constitution is their wise effort to prevent that from happening by creating, in the words of John Adams, “a government of laws and not of men.”