Obama, Zach Galifianakis, and the Presidential Dignity Fetish

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The idea that it is important to safeguard the dignity of the presidency is one of those ideas, like “reducing deficits is always good,” that’s shared so widely within official Washington that it is considered a bland truism rather than a point of view. Sometimes the shared concern for the dignity of the office becomes a shield on the president’s behalf, as when reporters fretted that a conservative reporter tarnished the dignity of the office by shouting questions at President Obama.

President Obama’s appearance on “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifianakis has prompted another round of worried harrumphing, this time not posed in opposition to Obama’s rude interrogators, but to Obama himself, for engaging in unpresidential comedy. (Which is to say, comedy that is not in the form of trading safe, knowing one-liners as the dinner speaker at a gathering of elite journalists.)

The New York Timesreport on Obama’s stunt quotes a former press secretary fretting. (“We have to worry about the dignity of the presidency,” said Mike McCurry.) Former Bush administration spokesperson Dan Senor has likewise registered his displeasure. At the White House briefing today, ABC News correspondent Jim Avila asked if the presidency had lost dignity due to the appearance.

One can certainly understand why the White House would be concerned about upholding the dignity of the office. Presidential dignity is one of the most powerful tools the president has. He commands a vast state apparatus designed to create a sense of grandeur around him, and this aura bestows upon him a power unavailable to his rivals.

Is this apparatus really too weak? Why is it the role of the press to worry that the president is coming across too much like an equal citizen and not enough like a monarch? Washington’s dignity fetish is one of those manifestations of the cult of the presidency that expresses some really weird ideas about how democracy is supposed to work.