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The American Presidency; Never set in stone, it has proved flexible yet enduring

By Richard L. StroutStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 16, 1982


America goes through a brief interval of patriotic introspection every year at the joint celebration of Washington-Lincoln birthdays. This time it comes just after the anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt. The occasion brings up annually the question of what the United States is all about, and how it got that way.

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The concept of the American presidency and its accompanying problems has caused debate for nearly 200 years. It has baffled many, including some Americans. The office didn't turn out quite the way it was supposed to. The presidency sometimes gives a bumpy ride but stays aloft. What keeps it airborne, as part of the unique US tri-motor separation of powers, is disputed. Now in the Washington-Lincoln birthday celebrations, Americans are giving the presidency another of their quick, affectionate, mystified glances - it is unlike any other democratic system in the world.

The unique feature of the government is its separation of powers. This triangular relationship is not static and the balance constantly varies between White House, Congress, and the courts. These varying changes would startle George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or even Franklin Roosevelt. When FDR took office, the dominant occupation in America was agriculture; now farmers make up only around 6 percent of the population. Again, the racial segregation that occurred in parts of the country in Roosevelt's first years has been removed. Another change is the relationship of government to poverty: European nations have acknowledged social responsibility for the poor and unemployed since Bismarck, but not till the 1929 stock market crash and resulting depression did the idea leap the Atlantic. It has now grown to a point where it has produced a counterrevolution under President Reagan. The Founding Fathers would rub their eyes. They invented the most radical government of their time, but some still believed in rule by ''the rich and well born.'' Their means for selecting presidents has been debated ever since.

Lord Bryce wrote a famous chapter on the American government: ''Why great men are not chosen presidents.'' He observed: ''The ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrity. . . . He likes his candidate to be sensible, vigorous, and above all what he calls 'magnetic,' and does not value, because he sees no need for, originality or profundity, a fine culture or a wide knowledge.''

Seventy-five years later Time magazine asked its readers (Dec. 15, 1976), ''Can anyone remember when he last went to vote for a US president and felt both enthusiastic and confident?'' After going through some of the candidates, it asked, ''Out of our large (214 million) and highly educated population, is this the best choice the American system can offer?''

What the political parties must look out for is not a good president but a good candidate, Mr. Bryce argued. Two political scientists, William R. Keech and Donald R. Matthews, of the Brookings Institution, have more recently declared:

''The United States has the most elaborate, complex, and prolonged formal system of nominating candidates for chief executive in the world.'' It runs from selection of delegates to the nominating conventions through the primaries.

Why doesn't the electoral system produce more George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns, it is sometimes asked. Today the public seems to show restlessness; opinion polls note uncertainty and questioning. In the 1980 presidential election some 46 percent of the eligible voters didn't bother to go to the polls. The number of voter dropouts has increased steadily since 1960. In recent elections the stay-at-homes theoretically could have changed the result.

The revolutionaries who helped devise the Constitution did not regard it as something that wouldn't change in time: It has never been static. George Washington was pleased with the new instrument and wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette on June 19, 1788, while ratification was still pending, that he expected ''many blessings will be attributed to our new government'' that would actually flow not from it but from the virtues and frugality of the people themselves: