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.

To elect two rulers, bound together by personal as well as political ties in a presidential family, would be better than to have a Vice President who is always suspected of maneuvering for the presidency. Even so, there is the problem of presidential succession. It can be neatly solved, however, by a third reform: The President should serve as ceremonial chief of state, and the Vice President should be the chief of government, the active executive.

Congressman Reuss has already introduced a constitutional amendment (H. J. Res. 578) to create a new chief of state to take over the ceremonial chores (dedicating dams, receiving ambassadors, and so on) from the President. But the novel title might seem empty, supported by none of the aura of our national traditions. It would be better to merge the two jobs in the presidential family, and then redistribute their duties. The active executive has to make too many political compromises to serve, in a ceremonial role, as a symbol of rectitude. Therefore, to give the President the role of ceremonial chief of state, and the Vice President the job of running the government, would comply not only with the usage of other countries but with our own subconscious preference for a national leader who does nothing and therefore makes no mistakes. It is just this superiority of moral symbolism over real issues that our commentators are eager to establish.

Given the new role for the Vice President, it will then be easy to make sure that we never have a chief of government who has lost a vote of confidence in the Gallup poll. If that confidence is lost, a resignation, a prompt divorce, and a new marriage (confirmed by the Congress under the provisions of the Twenty-fifth Amendment) will restore legitimacy until the next popular election.

The moral consensus of the people is the real basis for a constitutional system, and this reform is in harmony with up-to-date moral ideas. In one respect, it may even be ahead of them. How would the Today Show or Face the Nation react if, after the death or removal of a chief of government, it might seem desirable on grounds of merit to select a successor of the same sex as the chief of state? Can the President and the President's spouse be of the same sex?

The reader may have noted that this paper does not refer to the President as "he" or to the consort, the Vice President, as "she," or vice versa. The American people should be able to choose their First Family purely on qualifications and without discrimination on grounds of sex. And if this principle of affirmative action occasionally produces a President and consort of the same sex, our ability to adjust our moral ideas to practical necessity will soon make such an arrangement seem quite proper.

The beginning of the 1980 campaign is already at hand; this year's losers are already organizing for another try. It is not too soon to adopt the proposed reform. The plan has been worked out. John Gardner or Ralph Nader can take it from here