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11/20/2003 Archived Entry: "When did the president become an oriental potentate?"

WHEN DID PUBLIC SERVANTS BECOME ORIENTAL POTENTATES? Once, when Thomas Jefferson was vice president, he arrived alone at an inn. He was so scruffy looking, they refused to rent him a room. Even after the assassination of Lincoln, visitors could still walk up and knock on the door of the White House, and a family member would answer.

So at what moment did U.S. officials (especially presidents) become oriental potentates? When did they begin requiring (as GWB did on his London trip this week) the protection of 15,000 police, hundreds of his own bodyguards (paid for by you), the closure of airports and airspace, closures of roads he travels on, and closure of entire downtown districts of major cities for days on end -- so that none of us peons can go about our business as we wish? The only good news about Bush's trip to England is that the British government refused to give special immunity to any of the hundreds of military-armed guards Bush brought with him. Sorry, Uncle Sam, but if one of your goons shoots a bystander by mistake, we'll actually subject him to our standard legal procedures.

Thank heaven there's a shred of sanity left somewhere.

Shouldn't all this offend the average, independent American? What entitles the president to such dramatic (and Draconian) privileges? If security is a concern, let him hire his own bodyguards. If he doesn't feel safe traveling on a commercial jet, let him charter one and travel incognito. If he needs a few extra phones while on the road, let him get cell phones like the rest of us, rather than spending millions to wire up phone systems that will be in place only a week.

Some will say I don't understand security needs in this dangerous world. On the contrary, I think I understand them pretty well. If the U.S. government were behaving itself at home and abroad, and if individual Americans still saw themselves a sovereign (rather than as dependents of an all-powerful state), we and our public servants would be quite secure, thank you. And Bush could buy a plane ticket and hire his own staff like any other good, all-American rich man.

Anyway, all this ostentatious display is less about security than about macho. It's strutting peacocks. It's bulls pawing the ground. It's all about showing who's got the biggest you-know-what.

I know it's unfashionable to protest all this hoorah being made over heads of state. I'm aware that it's become routine to turn entire cities into forbidding military zones just so heads of state -- the poobahs of the moment, who'll be forgotten tomorrow -- can have a few drinks with each other. But damn them; this isn't necessary. And it isn't right. Okay, let third-world state-worshippers who imagine their current dictator is the living incarnation of God play these kinds of games. But the fact that Americans (and our British cousins -- the very folks who wrote the Magna Carta and beheaded a king!) are putting up with this glorification of political gods, and that our media barely reports on it, let alone questions it, is sad, sad, sad.

Posted by Claire @ 09:11 AM CST

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