Back to Basics

Easy-to-understand measures that could bring palpable improvement to public life

"A REFORMER," New York City's corrupt mayor Jimmy Walker once observed, "is a guy who rides through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat." Americans these days understandably regard politics and politicians with dismay, even contempt, but the counterweight on the scales of public opinion is a well-earned suspicion of reformers and reform. Poets and philosophers down the years have issued sober warnings on the subject. Coleridge's observation is typical: "Every reform, however necessary, will by weak minds be carried to an excess, that itself will need reforming."

A realist could hardly disagree. And yet it must also be admitted that one of the chief drawbacks of present-day efforts at reform has simply been their complexity. In ancient times what we now might think of as "regulatory oversight" tended to be expressed with peremptory concision: "Tell the Israelites: anyone, whether an Israelite or an alien residing in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall be put to death." Today, to cite but one example, the full text of the laws and regulations covering the conduct of federal election campaigns -- reforms dating back to the 1970s, and widely known to be inadequate -- fills a dozen official volumes.

Calls for political reform are once more in the air. In response, we might experiment with simplicity. Consider the following:

The No-Fly Zone. Modern Presidents almost never travel long distances in America by surface transportation, preferring the efficiency and glamour of Air Force One. However, on the rare occasions when they do undertake journeys by train or bus, the effect along the route is one of authentic popular expectation. Knots of ordinary people sit fanning themselves in lawn chairs, the paint still sticky on their handmade signs. This is how it always used to be: see the accounts in books like Washington's Southern Tour, 1791 and North for Union: John Appleton's Journal of a Tour to New England Made by President Polk in June and July 1847. Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled some 544,000 miles by rail during his twelve years in office, stopping at Nowheresvilles along the way and maintaining a leisurely daytime touring speed of no more than thirty-five miles an hour. A modern President may cover that distance by plane in a couple of years, encountering planted crowds at airports and moneyed ones in hotel ballrooms, and seeing essentially nothing.

So why not declare the continental United States to be a no-fly zone for the President? Indeed, a prohibition on domestic air travel ought to cover aspirants to the presidency as well. Establishing a no-fly zone would restore some of the populist aura of a medieval ruler's progress through the realm -- in this case, a realm whose terrestrial vastness and loneliness are essential elements of its character.

The Stamp Act. Concerned citizens wring their hands over our venal system of campaign financing, and over our apparent inability to implement reforms that don't contain fresh loopholes. What if we stopped worrying about the size of campaign war chests and instead started stipulating how the money had to be spent? Imagine, for instance, that candidates could raise as much money as they wished, from whomever they pleased, through whatever methods they might devise -- but were allowed by law to communicate with voters only by means of words written on paper and carried through the mails.

In 1995-1996 candidates for national office spent hundreds of millions of dollars to buy radio and television time for advertising. Directing that sum away from the airwaves and into the printed word would have far-reaching and beneficent consequences. For one thing, the U.S. Postal Service would be bound to improve. More important, so would the quality of public discourse: committing thoughts to writing almost inevitably has an uplifting effect on communication. Moreover, illiteracy would gradually disappear, as political leaders across the nation, competing for literate voters, began spending huge sums on "party-building activities" -- like running good schools. Even Republicans might perceive the wisdom of teaching the native-born children of illegal aliens how to read.

The Thingvellir Protocol. In a year or two Iceland will celebrate the millennium of its conversion to Christianity, and we will therefore soon be hearing a great deal, or at least a certain amount, about Iceland's contributions to Western civilization. Iceland's parliament, the Althing, came into existence more than a thousand years ago, and is widely acknowledged to be Europe's oldest legislative body. The Althing was ahead of its time in one other important respect: it was empowered to keep no more laws on the books than the presiding speaker could commit to memory. The rule was enforced every year by means of a public recitation by the speaker upon the Law Rock, a lava promontory overlooking the plains of Thingvellir.

This procedure, and the limitations it implies, hold great appeal. Modern America represents, of course, an advanced technological society, and it would be simplistic to adopt the Thingvellir Protocol without some modification: we really do need more laws than did tenth-century Iceland. An updated version of the protocol would permit the speaker of the House to supplement his memory with that of one other person -- maybe the House minority leader. (Alternatively, my wife suggests the person occupying the center space on Hollywood Squares.)

The "Natural-Born" Exclusion. Article II, Section 1, of the United States Constitution restricts the presidency to natural-born citizens of the United States -- the very people who have so often fallen short in our political life. One refinement that we ought to consider is deletion from the eligibility clause of the words "person except a natural born" after the word "no." The provision would thus stipulate that "no [...] Citizen" shall henceforward "be eligible to the Office of President" -- thereby putting the White House exclusively in the hands of non-Americans. This measure may strike some as bizarre, but it finds powerful precedent in the practice of many Italian city-states during the Renaissance: they placed executive authority in the hands of a podestà who by law was selected from outside the commune. The rationale was compelling. As one chronicler of twelfth-century Genoa observed, outsiders could assume the mantle of power without stirring up "civil discords and hateful conspiracies and divisions." Outsiders would lack corrupting ties to local economic, political, and familial interests, and also the slight whiff of disrepute that lingers even among the honorable after a long career in one community's public life.

Would we still hear complaints about a lack of candidates with "stature," or an absence of "choice," if instead of American citizens we had Tony Blair, Gro Brundtland, Nelson Mandela, Kim Dae Jung, and Mary Robinson to pick from? Not likely. Nor would we be hearing about troubling ties to Big Tobacco or Big Poultry. At the same time, making this electoral regime reciprocal -- that is, offering our ineligible native-born candidates to foreign lands -- would give the idea of "exporting democracy" a whole new meaning. Analysts frequently bemoan the fractious ethnicity and anemic democratic traditions in many struggling young countries. What better solution than the creation of an international podesteria, which could provide a Jesse Jackson or an Elizabeth Dole, a Mario Cuomo or a Steve Forbes, to serve as chief executive in Belgrade, Kabul, or Kinshasa?

The Screen Test. Finally, we could bring much-needed stability to the Executive Office of the President by making some basic decisions, as a people, about who is going to hold the job of President in the movies. Foreign audiences, judging us by our film output, must think we go through leaders with the impatience of Rome under the Praetorians. A partial list of those who have served as movie President during the past decade would include Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas, Bill Pullman, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Donald Moffat, Nigel Hawthorne, Stanley Anderson, Jim Curley, Kevin Kline, and Anthony Hopkins. Jack Lemmon and James Garner have depicted ex-Presidents. Glenn Close and Ben Kingsley have served as Vice President. John Travolta has run for the nation's highest office.

On Election Day we should vote not only for a President but also for an actor or actress to play the movie role of President for the next four years -- the projected winner, one might say. The victorious candidate would assume all cinematic Oval Office duties during the coming term -- but, of course, he or she would have to forswear all other movie and television roles, not to mention commercials.

My own preference would be for Morgan Freeman. He is a man of immense personal dignity who can boast military experience (Glory) and who has already done his prison time (The Shawshank Redemption). I'll look forward to seeing him in Amtrak One.

Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. His latest book is (1998).

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1998; Back to Basics; Volume 282, No. 6; pages 26 - 28.