The Laying on of Hands

by The New Republic | July 2, 1977

In the middle ages, and continuing well into modern times, the kings of France and England touched for scrofula, a disease which doctors today call tubercular adenitis. It was endemic in certain regions of Europe, and the kings claimed that a simple touch of their hands could cure it. So the disease was called mal de roi in France, and "the King's Evil" in England.

The monarchs were astute. Although one or two of the early kings claimed to touch for other diseases, they quickly decided to confine themselves to scrofula. It is a disfiguring rather than a wasting disease, and hardly ever fatal. Moreover, there are remissions and the sores--"putrid" and giving off a "foetid odour" as contemporary accounts put it--from time to time go away (and come back). Therefore there was a fair chance that many of those who were touched would seem to be cured in time for the recovery to be attributed to the royal fingers; and the uncured of course did not sue.

People of all classes believed in the cure, crossing Europe to have their sores touched; the monarchs were not entirely cynical, to some extent believing it also. It was what the great French Historian Marc Bloch, in his brilliant study. The Royal Touch, calls a "collective error." Bloch adds that it was "a more harmless one . . . than most of those which bestrew the human past," He does not scoff at the beliefs of another age, seeking only to understand them, and we might look at some of our own credulity before we wonder at that of the past.

There is evidence of a "collective error" in our own time that is hardly less of a delusion: what I will call" the presidential touch," the elevation of presidents to the status of physicians to the people. The presidency now seems to operate primarily by a laying on of hands. I wrote against this exercise of the presidential touch in The Kennedy Promise, although I did not then use the phrase. I compared President Kennedy not to the French and English monarchs, but to the Byzantine emperors who appeared before their people, sheathed in gold, suspended between earth and heaven. One had hoped that by now the presidency would have returned to being a normal institution, engaged in the mundane business of politics. But it does not seem to be so.

Let us consider two small instances. It is only a few months since President Ford rolled up his sleeve for the cameras and had a shot for swine flu, which was then thought to be spreading like the yellow fever across the Pacific. No sooner had Ford left the White House than the cameras gave us pictures of President Carter rolling up his sleeve to give his blood to the blood bank. 1 gazed awestruck at the second of these apparitions. Are Republicans warned before the blood of Jimmy Carter is introduced into their veins? Do people clamor to receive the President's blood, just as in the middle ages they used to drink the infected water in which the monarchs had dipped their fingers after touching the sores of scrofula victims?


Presidents seem more and more to be expected to be physicians. They make visits to the people as if these are their patients. It cannot be long before President Carter goes to Alaska and stays the night in an igloo, to lay hands on an eskimo family as it bunks down for the winter, with its pile of raw fish on one side and its television set on the other. If he cannot find any eskimos who live in igloos anymore, he will no doubt spend the night with the sea lions, laying his hands on them. From there, it will not be long before he goes to spend the night with a worried sheep rancher in

Montana, But since sheep ranchers tend to be robust and unworried, and suspicious of strangers, he will no doubt spend the night with an ailing sheep, laying his hands on it. By the time that he runs for office again. Carter may well have laid hands on every scrofulous animal in America; and the cameras will be there, as the physician makes his visitations and heals.

Of course it is television that demands these ceremonies. Television is not allowed to go where most of the things that matter are taking place. Its cameras do not get into secret meetings and private negotiations. The printed press can publish a reasonably elaborate report of what it learns has happened at a private meeting, but this is not satisfactory for a medium that depends on pictures. Instead TV searches for the ceremonial aspects of politics, and especially of the presidency. TV cameras encourage Presidents to lay on hands. Television would build an igloo for Carter to stay in, and provide the ailing sheep.

John Kennedy was shot on the second of his campaign progresses through the country a full year before the actual election. If one keeps one's ear close to the ground in Washington these days, one can already hear stirrings of series of presidential progresses to be made by Jimmy Carter starting some time after the mid-term elections in 1978, When one thinks that there will also be Rosalynn and Lillian and Chip and Amy, and perhaps Billy to make sure of the wet vote, it is hard not to think of the royal progresses of the past.

To move Elizabeth I on a royal progress required "from four to six hundred carts, and 2400 horses loaded with furniture, bedding, tapestries, kitchen utensils, library books, animal fodder, and the personal effects of each member of the household from the Queen to the court jester and the locksmith." None of them seem to have carried their own bags, so every courtier and nobleman and councilor in turn brought his own retainers and servants. When Henry VIII went to Calais, his court was reduced in size for the journey, but it nevertheless ate in one day, in meat and poultry alone, 6 oxen, 8 calves, 40 sheep, 12 pigs, 36 "capons gras," 96 "good capons," 7 swans, 20 storks, 34 pheasants, 192 partridges and the same number of cocks, 56 herons, 84 pullets, 720 larks, 240 pigeons, 24 peacocks, and 192 plovers and teals. The list is intriguing: exactly three times as many larks as pigeons, which is understandable, for larks are small. But who got the few peacocks, and who had to be satisfied with the plovers and teals?

We may think that we do not have progresses like that these days, but the truth is that the President is now followed by a substantial retinue of people with notebooks and cameras, and even the touring households themselves are not all that modest. Rosalynn Carter took a personal retinue of a quarter of a hundred with her to Latin America, including her hairdresser, as well as the accompanying band of reporters; and when one thinks that a royal progress in the past used to last many weeks and often several months, the proportions now are not much out of scale. Very little hard news comes out of it all. But the President or his wife is seen to lay on hands, as Rosalynn Carter gave the presidential touch to two American missionaries in Brazil.

The last three Presidents all have promised to heal the nation, to bind up its wounds, to make it whole. But Presidents are not physicians, they do not have the royal touch. It is not their task to heal. Yet this is what we go on asking of them, in so far as the press and television speak for us. The people are alienated; Presidents should excite their faith. The people are polarized; Presidents should bring them together. The people are indifferent; Presidents should stimulate their interest. More often than not, the press and television have invented these diseases of the people, and then demand that Presidents should cure them. Ce roi est un grand magicien, said Montesquieu ironically in The Persian Letters: and it is as magicians that Presidents are now being hawked, by themselves and their advisers, largely in response to the importunacies of television and the press.

Although there is much in the notion of "the imperial presidency" as it has been propounded in recent years, fundamentally the idea is on the wrong track. It is not the power of the presidency that has grown to be objectionable. In many ways, it is still a very weak institution, as Presidents keep finding out when they reach the White House. Given the necessary role of the United States in the world today, a severe reduction of the executive power would be a disaster. Congress is not made to govern, it is made to obstruct, a very worthy function, which it performs with its own skills. What is needed is not a reduction in the power of the presidency, but a strengthening of the separate and different roles of other institutions in the system. I agree with Aaron Wildavsky and Nelson Polsby that one of the most important changes would be a strengthening of the roles of the two major parties.

What needs lessening is not the power of the presidency, but its prestige. The increase in its prestige is largely the result of the steady cultivation in this century, and especially in the past few decades, of the direct relationship between the President and the people. Every President since John Kennedy has, in his own way, sought to circumvent the political process by relying ultimately on his direct relationship with the people. It misled Kennedy, it trapped Johnson, it annihilated Nixon, it befuddled Ford; and there is too much evidence that Carter is deceived by the same illusion. If ever they get into trouble, they think that they can appear before the people, in person or on television, and simply lay on hands; and at their touch the pus will be released from the sores of the nation.

But the intermediaries between the President and the people hold the real political power; and these intermediaries are the most likely to warn in time that follies are being committed. The President is not a physician, he is a politician, who should be engaged in politics, and not in healing or magic. Too many Presidents have been distracted in recent years by the partial truth that only the President is the representative of the whole people. Perhaps no single member of Congress represents them as he does, but its two houses collectively represent them in ways he does not.

Marc Bloch recounts an episode on 27 April 1340 when the ambassador of Edward III of England appeared before the Doge of Venice to contest the claim of Philip IV to the throne of France. He demanded that, if "Philip of Valois" was indeed a king, he should prove it in one of two traditional ways—either by "exposing himself to hungry lions, for lions never attack a true king; or let him perform the miraculous healing of the sick, as all other true kings are wont to do." Bloch has severe doubts whether the English ambassador ever delivered this speech (although it bears some resemblance to the way in which the English have always talked to foreigners) but it reminds me of the behavior of American Presidents in recent years.

They are always asking proofs of royalty from others in the political world. Let you represent the whole people! Let you heal them! Let you touch for scrofula! Let you survive in the lion's den of the White House, to which every hungry interest in the realm at last comes! But it is a dangerous game to play, for it is worth remembering that each of the past three Presidents has been expelled from office. Johnson was so weakened that he could not run for reelection; Nixon was forced to resign; Ford was even denied the chance of a full term. So much for the direct relationship with the people! So much for the presidential touch.


By Henry Fairlie

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