Often, the President is referred to as the most powerful man in the Western world. A great deal of this power lies not just in his ability to command America's Army or his personal wealth, but in his ability to influence policy and work with legislators to navigate a way through the troubles facing the country. We care what the President has to say, what opinions he holds and what he does.
Or at least we used to.
Prior to the Age of Television, the President was sort of the ultimate daddy figure. If the President was mad at you, it was one step down from God. If he wanted to congratulate you, there was virtually no higher honor for an American and even for a considerable number of Non-Americans. The Leader of the Free World was almost a legend.
Presidents took effort to appear invulnerable and inscrutable. That ended, to a great extent, with the TV camera. Presidential hopefuls were judged not just on what they said, but by how they looked in a way they had not been before. The Assassination of President Kennedy showed the world that the legend could be hurt and could die. The Watergate Scandal showed that a President could be dishonest and untrustworthy.
All of these qualities were known rationally before these two presidents, of course. But with the lack of connection the average person had, there was a mystique about the Oval Office and the person who sat behind its desk that was a layer of armor for both the president and for our government. That dignity helped the President do his job. It was part of our national identity; or leaders were noble, not by birth, but by virtue of their patriotism.
TV cameras didn't allow for that sort of romantacism.
The chipping away at the dignity of the office would not stop with Kennedy and Nixon, however. President Carter was unable to bring home the Iranian hostages. President Reagan would have his administration questioned for its part in Iran-Contra. President Clinton would be made to testify about his sex life. President George W. Bush... well, was President George W. Bush.
The fact we elected our first African American President was a sign of hope for those who wanted to see a restoration of office, a return to our Commander in Chief being unassailable and with him our nation. We were, and still are, in some of the most dire straits our country has been in since it's founding. A leader we could believe in, one that promised hope and progress, was what so many of us very much wanted.
Then came the birth certificate thing.
It wasn't enough we had the economy, wars, natural and unnatural disasters to contend with. The incessant cries of "Show us the long form!" were a din, drowning out reasonable discussion. What started out as a campaign trail diversion by the woman who would become President Obama's Secretary of State was taken up as a viscous challenge to the very veracity of the President's citizenship. The sideshow was made center stage.
Birth announcements weren't enough. A document certified by the state government of Hawaii was not enough. No, the Birthers required a proof of worth that no other president in history has ever been asked to provide.
Today, the President has finally capitulated. His long form birth certificate is now available for the world.
I sincerely doubt this will silence those who call the man who sits in the highest office in the land "The Kenyan". It will not reign in the sideshow. But it is done, and if this is a good thing or not is yet to be seen.
The fact that it had to happen is a sign that even after a candidate has gained the vote of the people, taken the office, sworn the oath and served for half a term, his eligibility can and will again be questioned by those who did not want him in office to begin with.
The GOP has presented a dizzying array of hopefuls for the 2012 race. It includes a millionaires and reality show stars. There are religious zealots, media trainwrecks and poster children of the lunatic fringe. There is perhaps one or two reasonable candidates among them and even they have qualities that would have kept them from getting any serious attention 4 or 5 administrations ago. Whatever else they're doing, they're not classing up the joint.
Is there hope that dignity can be restored to the office? Is it possible that President Obama's act will unify us behind our Commander In Chief so that, even if we disagree with him, we can support the office he holds? Only the future will tell.
But seeing what has been thrown at President Obama and the pretenders who wish to succeed him, the outlook is grim at best.