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A Campaign of Vilification

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

As Lyndon Johnson told it -- or allowed it to be told in his name -- this Goldwater guy, if given half a chance, would blow up the world. In which case, why shouldn't the voters back in '64 not play it safe and keep LBJ in the White House?

Memories of the infamous Johnson television spot, with its daisy-leaf-plucking-about-to-be-incinerated-by-bad-Barry, cuddly, little girl, cause some of us old-timers to reach for the Maalox. (Small wonder that Barry would later say, talking of Lyndon, "Don't get me started on that SOB.") The debasement of presidential discourse wasn't the only public offense Johnson committed, but he sure set a vital precedent -- one that came to mind as Mitt Romney was expatiating on Barack Obama's "campaign of personal vilification and demonization."

I might in the foregoing sentence have written "President Obama's," rather than "Barack Obama's" campaign, inasmuch as a certain Barack Obama serves as president. The context puts one off just a bit from diligent assignments of respect. Presidents have an implied obligation to behave presidentially rather than in the manner of, well, Chicago community organizers. The obligation prevailed in politics for a long time. How many malcontents did President Washington slay with his tongue? Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to take a more modern example, might assail "economic royalists," but he laid off the moral bona fides, however he may personally have discerned them, of Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie and Tom Dewey.

Barack Obama, you're no Franklin Roosevelt, Romney seems to be saying. More like a Lyndon Johnson perhaps?

Romney, the other day, mentioned "The Harry Reid attack. 'Oh, he hasn't paid taxes in 10 years.'... The attack about how Romney's responsible for this woman who died (years after Bain Capital closed a steel mill for which the woman's husband worked, costing the family their health insurance) ... and the vice president's comments (to a mostly black audience) about 'chains.' Really? The White House just keeps stepping lower and lower and lower ..."

I suppose an Obama partisan could -- probably has already -- accused Romney of "whining." Poor baby just can't take it, you know? Nor has the political trade some ethereal reputation to defend anyway for delicacy of expression. Oh, and this, too -- none of the stuff to which Romney alludes came out of Obama's own mouth; it issued from the mouths merely of people who support Obama. Not Obama's fault!

I guess that clears everything up. Except for two things:

The office of chief magistrate is supposed to command general respect. Respect, in a democratic setting, underlies voluntary obedience and compliance. A leader you don't respect receives -- at best -- grudging acknowledgement of his authority. It would seem in Obama's interest to give the best account he can -- consonant with the duty to campaign hard and effectively -- of his moral authority as chief magistrate. It would reinforce his capacity to govern.

But then point two, and this is more important. If presidents necessarily are human, with the usual run of human traits -- good, bad, indifferent -- the presidency as an institution transcends the lot. The presidency in a sense is all of us -- the sum of political experience and aspirations.

Modern people don't much like -- many actually hate and despise -- institutions, which have lives spanning generations, existing not by whim but by reason of prior and continuous arrangement. An institution is valued for the length of its whiskers.

The presidency of the United States is such an institution. It requires -- it demands outright -- a certain gravity, a certain dignity, as the occupant of the office goes about the fulfillment of his calling. A president without gravity or dignity, or if nothing else the outward appearance of both properties, debases and degrades. He wipes his shoes on the furniture, blows his nose on the tapestries. Institution? What institution?

What we have in such instance isn't a presidency, classically understood. We have instead a commercial office, a theater for ambition. Can we see what Romney is complaining about? A campaign of presidential vilification touches us all, debases us all. Don't feel it yet? Stick around.

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