25 May 2005

The US President: kingly and prime-ministerial duties

Several years ago I received a phone call from the office of a member of parliament representing the old Reform Party. His assistant let me know that he would be at Redeemer on such and such a date, and would I like him to speak to my class. I immediately declined the offer, indicating that we were behind in the material to be covered and couldn't spare the hour. What I did not tell her was that I was reluctant to see my class turned into a partisan political platform by someone who would shortly be seeking re-election. One of my colleagues did indeed take up the offer, so I sat in on his class to see what happened. Sure enough, as I had feared, the MP had little of substance to say and he did indeed manage to turn his "lecture" into a campaign speech. My colleague later told me he had regretted turning valuable class time over to him.

I had this episode in the back of my mind when I heard the news that President Bush was to speak at Calvin College's commencement ceremony. I was not surprised to hear that many faculty and students objected to his presence, given that a partisan political leader inevitably carries with him the lingering scent of the controversies he and his policies may have stirred up in the course of his time in office. By hosting such a leader, the institution could be perceived to be approving such policies as well as the person behind them. I will not here comment on the substance of Bush's agenda or on the concerns of the faculty who took out the newspaper advertisement in advance of the President's visit. However, I think it worth noting that the American constitution prescribes a presidency which must inevitably unite in a single office what might be called kingly and prime-ministerial duties.

Here in Canada last week we saw a good deal of excitement in the House of Commons as a sitting government was very nearly defeated on a motion of nonconfidence. Two days earlier we saw a dramatic defection to the government front benches, and the animosities that this stirred up on the opposition side of the chamber. Meanwhile, the Queen touched down out west for her tour of Saskatchewan and Alberta, to celebrate one-hundred years since these provinces entered confederation. As head of state, the Queen stays above partisan politics, as (ostensibly) do her representatives, the governor general and the ten lieutenant governors. Thus she could remain blithely undisturbed by the events going on thousands of miles away in Ottawa, continuing to carry out her responsibilities as the chief symbol of the unity of the nation. Any university would be honoured to have the Queen at its commencement. Paul Martin, on the other hand, would be a different matter.

South of the border, however, head of state and head of government are combined in the single office of president. This means that, whenever a president undertakes a duty appropriate for a supra-partisan head of state, he inevitably runs the risk of being perceived as a mere prime minister, caught up in all the divisiveness of the day-to-day partisan political process. This is undoubtedly how many of the Calvin faculty perceived Bush's participation in last saturday's graduation exercises. Now I feel comfortable in the judgement that Bush gave a quite good speech -- a "kingly" speech really -- appealing to the students' youthful ideals and urging them on to service of God and their fellow human beings. Nothing was said about stem cell research, judicial nominations or Iraq. Moreover, his mention of Abraham Kuyper was a good example of knowing an audience and appealing to something to which they can easily relate. Bush, in my estimation, successfully left his prime-ministerial role behind and spoke in his kingly role.

Yet because a president must be both king and prime minister, sorting out the responsibilities of each and trying to maintain an effective separation between the two are not easy things to do. Presidents rarely make good kings and good prime ministers at the same time. They usually excel at one or the other, and they frequently excel at neither. They hardly ever do well at both. Did the Calvin faculty fail to honour duly constituted authority, as Chuck Colson charges in today's Breakpoint commentary? Given that I am currently writing a monograph on authority, this question is of particular interest to me. In response, I will only say that I would not go that far, as the protest against the actions of someone holding a particular authoritative office need hardly be understood as a denial of the authority of the office itself. However, it seems to me that the events last weekend in Grand Rapids, Michigan, illustrate at the very least the inevitable conflict of roles that comes with an office combining the functions of head of state and head of government in the same person.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com