Everyone has weighed in on the subject by now — was it right for Tim Thomas not to meet the president at the White House? I didn’t comment on it because I assumed the answer was obvious: the president is guilty of countless moral and constitutional outrages to which a decent person may not wish even by appearances to lend his endorsement.
There is, moreover, no need for a private citizen to honor “the office of the presidency.” Since when does a free people honor an office?
Yet some conservatives are evidently appalled at Thomas’s behavior; I inadvertently encountered one on Facebook who insisted that “Mr. Thomas should have attended out of a basic respect for the office of the President…. As a conservative Republican it would be an honor and pleasure to meet any President, especially one who wants to meet me specifically to honor me.”
A commenter agreed: “Regardless of our personal feelings about the President, we should always honor and respect the office of the Presidency…. I’m appalled to think that an American citizen would think we should show no respect to the highest office of the greatest, mo[st] generous nation on this earth.”
Here is one of the classic neoconservative errors: whether or not the U.S. is the “greatest, most generous nation on this earth,” why would agreement with this statement obligate one to show obeisance to the U.S. presidency? Is the presidency responsible for the greatness and generosity of America? If not, why the superstitious demand for reverence?
Long gone is the chief executive who sees his role as the humble execution of the laws. Now he is to impart “vision” and meaning to our lives, engaging in grandiose programs at home and abroad. He must touch all aspects of civil society. His person must be the focus of our aspirations.
When Theodore Roosevelt convened a superficially innocuous meeting of coaches and athletes to discuss rough play in college football over one hundred years ago, he was personifying this new presidency. All the cares of civil society must be referred to him — or, at least, we must be deeply interested in his opinion.
An athlete visiting the White House is lending further legitimacy to this kind of superstitious reverence, as is anyone who demands he do so.
No surprise that the person who wrote the initial comment is a Gingrich supporter. Gingrich, of course, regularly congratulates himself for his “visionary” speeches. No conservative of the old school would have spoken like this. (Newt’s next visionary speech is going to be about the space program — evidently it’s now conservative to respond to an impossible fiscal crisis by putting a trip to Mars at the top of the priority list.) A conservative seeks to preserve and defend the finite things of hearth and home. It is not for him to remake society, or propose a “New Frontier,” “New Freedom,” or “New Covenant.” Neither would he consider remaking the political culture of the Middle East, or any of the other fantasies of the oxymoronic “national greatness conservatism” of Gingrich, Bill Kristol, and David Brooks.
Conservatives do not think or speak this way. Moreover, conservatives do not want to see civil society overawed by the political class, much less for people to speak of “my president” or to genuflect before his office. When Jefferson chose not to deliver the State of the Union address in person, thereby inaugurating a tradition that would last a century, he reflected this important principle of a healthy society.