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BERLIN — I’m walking down a street in what used to be the communist part of this city, when my companion points to a couple of police officers strolling in front of an otherwise ordinary-looking doorstep. He explains to me that this is the apartment of Angela Merkel, head of the German government. (Rather charmingly, it’s next door to a shop called “The Empire of Art”).
Merkel’s official title is chancellor, but the office she holds is more like that of an English prime minister rather than an American president. Prime ministers can live in ordinary-looking apartments: a president, who both runs the executive branch of our government and is supposed to somewhat mystically embody the nation as our official head of state, is required to inhabit a pseudo-palace that uneasily blends democratic ideology with royalist trappings.
All this makes me think of the rather startling fact that Hillary Rodham Clinton is fairly likely to become the next president of the United States. Precisely because the president in a sense embodies the nation, a woman president is a considerably more radical innovation than a female prime minister.
Of course, a number of traditional societies have been ruled by queens, but in a genuine monarchy royal persons are thought to belong to what is almost a different species. For example, it’s telling that Cleopatra, the heir to a throne held by god-kings, could rule over ancient Egypt, while in the world’s first democracy (Athens), women were allowed no role whatsoever in public life.
In ancient times, women could be monarchs; in the modern world, they have slowly won the right to be politicians. The American presidency, which has become both a political office and a kind of imperial throne, combines both roles. (Consider the increasingly elaborate pomp and circumstance that surrounds presidents, with their retinues of courtiers, their summer palaces and their pharaonic memorial libraries.)
This helps explain, I think, why the idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency causes so many people to start foaming at the mouth. It’s almost impossible to find a more mainstream politician than Clinton, yet there are apparently millions of Americans who are convinced she’s some sort of Maoist lesbian hippie, who on the day she’s inaugurated will stop shaving her legs, and start turning the White House into a patchouli-scented commune, where she will plan a cultural revolution in which hackysack, artificial insemination and vegan tofu salad will replace baseball, motherhood and apple pie.
The problem, you see, is that despite her impeccably middle-of-the-road voting record, her longtime support for the Iraq war and her general lack of anything resembling, even loosely speaking, liberal political credentials, Clinton is a girl. And girls, as modern science has recently confirmed, have cooties.
To put it another way, like so many other things in American political life, it all goes back to the 1960s. The ’60s (or, more accurately, the 11 years between the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show and the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon) really did represent a kind of cultural revolution in American life.
That revolution gave birth to many things, including the backlash politics that resulted in the past quarter-century of mostly Republican rule. It also created the possibility of a woman president: something that was unthinkable in 1963, and which is now one of the likely outcomes of the backlash to the GOP backlash.
It’s almost compulsory for people across the political spectrum to assume that gender is no longer a particularly big deal when it comes to something like running for president. I suspect that over the next year and a half we will learn just how false that assumption is.
(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)