First Lady Just a Wife

One hears talk about first ladies. I’ve never written a critical word about any president’s wife, including Bill Clinton’s bride, Hillary. I never have because as far as the Constitution is concerned, there is no office of first lady. The president’s wife is a private citizen, and I don’t criticize private citizens unless they are involved in crimes.

As far as the Constitution is concerned, the president’s wife is just the president’s wife, has no power or authority and should not be allotted any staff. The elevation of the president’s wife into a pseudo-office began in the 1970s, but it’s simply one of many wrong things they do in Washington these days.

Presidents used to go home after their terms were over, receiving only a modest pension. Now they go home with staff and Secret Service protection and a sizable budget for office expenses. Presidential libraries have become a boondoggle, though at least they are in large part financed with private funds.

All of this is part of the elevation of the president to an emperorlike status never contemplated by the Founding Fathers and totally inconsistent with the philosophy of a republic. When modern presidents visit a foreign country, they travel with an entourage that requires a great deal of Air Force transport capacity. I recall specifically that the first Bush president carried 16 armored limousines to England for a visit. God knows how many his son required.

What a contrast to a genuinely great American president, Teddy Roosevelt. When he went to England to attend a state funeral, he declined the use of a gilded carriage. That would be inappropriate for the president of a republic, he said. Instead, T.R. walked in the funeral procession, dressed in a business suit.

Harry Truman and his beloved Bess caught the train in Washington for their return to Independence, Mo. Unlike today’s politicians, who greedily grasp at every opportunity to make money off their public office, Truman declined all offers of directorships from big corporations. "It isn’t me you want," he told them. "It’s the presidency, and that doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the people." When Truman wrote a personal letter while he was president, he used personal stationery and stamps paid for out of his own pocket. Today’s president blithely uses Air Force One as a personal campaign plane.

I have never bought into this imperial presidency. The office of president, under the Constitution, was made a deliberately weak office. If the politicians in Washington obeyed the Constitution, which is to say if frogs sang arias, the president would not be allowed to start wars without a formal declaration, nor would he be allowed to legislate with executive orders.

As for the president himself, whoever he is, he is nothing more than an ordinary American citizen with a temporary job. As a man, he is entitled to common courtesy; the office itself is entitled to respect, but not worship or awe. As Truman had the integrity to realize, the presidency does not belong to the man holding the office, but to the American people. The White House is the people’s house. Some presidents have respected that; others have not. Ronald Reagan always wore a jacket and tie in the Oval Office. Richard Nixon was careful never to put his feet on the furniture. That’s in stark contrast to Bill Clinton’s behavior, which was personally disgraceful and showed contempt for the White House, especially the carpet.

In our country, we elect presidents to administer the laws passed by Congress and to conduct diplomatic relations with foreign countries on a temporary basis. We do not elect saviors or messiahs or kings or emperors. Ninety-five percent of the business of government should be done by the state and local governments.

The current president is typical of the low state of American politics. He has made a few decisions, all of them wrong, and otherwise spent his time raising money and campaigning.

Americans should remember the great observation by the French essayist Montaigne: "No matter how high the throne, the king still sits on his arse."

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.