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Steinbeck

“The relationship of Americans to their President is a matter of amazement to foreigners. Of course we respect the office and admire the man who can fill it, but at the same time we inherently fear and suspect power. We are proud of the President, and we blame him for things he did not do. We are related to the President in a close and almost family sense; we inspect his every move and mood with suspicion. We insist that the President be cautious in speech, guarded in action, immaculate in his public and private life; and in spite of these imposed pressures we are avidly curious about the man hidden behind the formal public image we have created. We have made a tough but unwritten code of conduct for him, and the slightest deviation brings forth a torrent of accusation and abuse.

The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce them for things that we ourselves do every day. A Presidential slip of the tongue, a slight error in judgment — social, political, or ethical — can raise a storm of protest. We give the President more work than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.”

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From John Steinbeck’s essay “Government of the People,” published in his 1966 book America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction.

I had never heard about this lesser-known work of Steinbeck’s until yesterday, when I read William Vollman’s essay “Life as a Terrorist: Uncovering My FBI file” in the newest edition of Harper’s magazine. In this account, the FBI’s bumblings and hysterical misappraisals of Vollman and his friends are counterposed to the sagelike voice of Steinbeck, that most native of American authors, whose understanding of the American project — especially its sincerity and idealism, and how it may be cynically twisted by the powerful — still echoes into our own age.

I highly recommend Vollman’s essay as well as Jonathan Franzen’s “A Different Kind of Father”, a look at literature and paternalism, in the September edition of Harper’s.