Political Morality and the First Family

The reform that is needed is obvious: The President's spouse, as well as the President, must be elected by the people.

SOME commentators are spoiling the Bicentennial activities by bemoaning Watergate, multinational bribery, and congressional philandering, while harping on the high moral standards of the Founding Fathers. But the Founding Fathers should share the blame: in an excess of rationalism they deprived us of the stabilizing influence of a symbol of public morality at the apex of our constitutional system.

Since then, Queen Victoria has showed us how to set a high moral tone for a political government. Even more obscure queens, such as Caroline and Alexandra, helped to maintain the official proprieties more or less, without cramping the styles of George IV and Edward VII or their subjects. And that is just what the American public wants today from its First Family.

The Founding Fathers did not see how they could have a chief of state elected and still expect his consort to serve as a symbol of moral ideals. But now the American people—more important, the television commentators, who serve as the contemporary equivalent of the established Church—are fumbling for the solution. Ever since Eleanor, none of the Presidents' spouses has been permitted to remain in the comfortable obscurity that suited most of them. The public clearly wants a moral symbol in the White House, but does not quite know how to give it a constitutional basis.

The way to do so is suggested by two modern facts. First, the will of the people, instead of dynastic inheritance, is now the basis of sovereignty. Second, the psychology of Freud and the gynecology of The Pill help us to be more flexible about marriage.

If for centuries royalty has been willing to sacrifice personal preferences and to marry for reasons of state, our Presidents can do no less. To let them have consorts chosen for their own pleasure is just the kind of frivolous romanticism that undermines our public ethics. The reform that is needed is obvious: The President's spouse, as well as the President, must be elected by the people.

We can do this without bothering to amend the Constitution, just as we did when we decided to elect the President by popular vote, and to make the Electoral College only a formality. Informal custom already controls not only our method of election but also the system of honorifics that surrounds the presidency. The White House, the First Lady—these terms suggest a popular desire for more dignity and status than our obsolete, antimonarchical prejudices have permitted.

If the President's consort is to be elected, it will sometimes be necessary to ask the President to give up an existing spouse. Young love is not always the right basis for high political responsibility. For the discarded consort, the amenities could be preserved by an adequate pension and Secret Service detail, and perhaps the award of some title such as Dowager First Lady (or Gentleman).

How can we manage this new system of selection? Happily we can do so without constitutional amendment, and at the same time solve another problem viz., what to do with the Vice President. Now it is clear:

The Vice President should be elected as the spouse of the President.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In