A British journalist put it best the other day: “Can you name, off the top of your head, the president of Germany? No, it isn’t Angela Merkel. She’s the chancellor. Who’s the head of state?”
Most Americans can’t name the British prime minister (David Cameron), but they sure as shootin’ know who the British head of state is. There’s a mystique about the monarchy that fulfills a yearning in people to respect institutions, and a desire for historical continuity that binds a country to its past.
We don’t have that luxury. In our system, the head of state and the head of government are the same person, so that leader is automatically looked at askance from the outset by a large portion of the electorate that didn’t vote for him. He’ll be out in a maximum of eight years, to boot⎯so there’s no point in carving his crest into any architectural masonry.
This was by design. Washington, our first president, had to set the proper balance between being a leader whose power derived from the people and being a head of government who ought to be accorded a certain amount of pomp and ceremony. It was a difficult act, and he was winging it. Having been a military commander in his previous career probably helped him navigate the uncharted waters.
The British, on the other hand, maintain the quaint conceit that their country, including everything and everybody in it, belongs to Queen Elizabeth personally. The Prime Minister heads “HMG,” or “Her Majesty’s Government.” The names of naval ships begin with “HMS.” In trial proceedings, it isn’t the people, but the Crown vs. Whomever. British citizens are “subjects.” Elizabeth is the British national character, soul, symbol, aspiration, history, tradition, custom, religion⎯all these things and more⎯embodied in one little old lady with dowdy hats.
What do we have? Some yellowed documents in the National Archives. Portraits of dead guys on our money. Nations need something like a royal family--a bunch of living people who did nothing to deserve the honor but get born into the role--to rally around and revere. Since we don’t have our own, we have to borrow back the one we threw out a couple of centuries ago. Sure, this craving is silly. Judging from the ratings the TV networks are anticipating, however, it’s genuine.
The Federal President of Germany, by the way, is a gent named Christian Wulff… in case you ever get asked about it on Jeopardy.