I’ve been reading various histories lately, mostly about the United States. One thing that seems to emerge from the various ages–we Americans have always agreed we don’t want any kind of a king, but we can’t agree on what we ought to have instead.
I also recently saw a movie made while Herbert Hoover was president but delayed until after he left office because Louis B. Mayer (a kind of king in his own domain) didn’t want anybody getting the wrong political ideas. The movie, Gabriel Over the White House, involves a hands-off president who, thanks to divine intervention, decides it’s time to take charge and get this country moving.
When Congress protests that some of his actions might exceed the powers granted him by the Constitution, Hammond dismisses Congress and sends the members home.
Refusing to follow the recommendations of his cabinet to suppress the “army of the unemployed” who are organizing a march on Washington (echoing the 1932 march by World War I veterans, which was suppressed by General Douglas MacArthur on orders from Hoover), President Hammond fires his cabinet and supports the marchers. He starts some very New Deal-sounding programs to get the unemployed back to work. To put gangsters out of the bootlegging business, he unilaterally repeals the 18th Amendment and sets up a personal police force armed with tanks and machine guns to gun the miscreants down.
Finally, Hammond calls all the leaders of the world to view our Navy destroying two of its own battleships, using aerial bombing that he says makes all offensive navies obsolete. He promises to “help” the other nations similarly dispose of their now obsolete weapons of war unless they curtail defense spending and use the proceeds to repay their debts to the U.S.
To prevent this kingly hero from becoming a Fascist-style dictator (remember what Hitler was doing in Europe in 1932), the movie has an unseen Gabriel quietly take him off to heaven, his earthly work concluded as all the nations sign a pledge to mend their ways.
It seems odd that this movie was made before FDR took office, as it seems to foreshadow much of what he did or tried to do just a few years later. He didn’t send Congress packing, but he did try to pack the Supreme Court so it wouldn’t interfere with the New Deal.
It suggests the country was in a receptive mood to a forceful leader to help it out of its jam, a mood that only intensified as we entered World War II.
But in reading a biography of Washington Irving, I find that many Americans in the post-Revolutionary years wanted a leader to “fix” everything without so much cow-towing to the “sovereign mob.” A group of patriots, including Aaron Burr, allegedly attempted to grab power in the West because they thought Jefferson too timid in his expansion of the country’s boundaries.
And of course today we are having yet another great debate over whether our president should lead us over all protest (including, some would say, our own), taking us to the promised land where all our problems are solved by command.
Viewed in the historical context, the issues of today seem different than when they seem to have sprung into being like this morning’s flowers.