Thomas Jefferson called the American presidency “a bad edition of the Polish king.” In the intervening two centuries, however, the office has become one that not even the Poles would trade for a Teutonic knight or Lithuanian count.
To elect a president now costs $1 billion, and the time needed ranges from two years to eternity. For all that invested capital, who gets to vote for a candidate who articulates their political views?
On paper, the Democratic Party stands for the working classes; government support for the underprivileged; skepticism about corporate concentrations of power; and a foreign policy that, from Woodrow Wilson, talks about trying to “keep us out of wars.”
Yet, the point can be made that a voter for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2012 will be endorsing corporate bailouts, sweetheart bank deals, unlawful search-and-seizure procedures and the flight plans of drone missiles flying over most countries in the Middle East — if not the Paramus Mall.
The Republicans, meanwhile, make claims of fiscal responsibility, limits on government powers, middle-class values and, abroad, a combination of realpolitik and trade.
Those slogans sound fine on bumper stickers. Except that the last time the voters chose a Republican president, they ended up with several undeclared wars, budget deficits, Orwellian federal agencies that tap phones and read e-mails — and mismanagement of the economy that robbed middle-class Americans of homes and equity.
Another reason a billion-dollar election yields up hundred-dollar candidates is because, the presidency has also become a bad edition of daytime television.
POLITICO regularly runs President Barack Obama’s daily schedule, which often goes something like this: brief morning conversation with aides in the Oval Office on the daily crisis; flight to some swing state, often Ohio, North Carolina or Colorado; speech to an adoring audience, featuring soccer moms or the sympathetic unemployed; uptown dinner with campaign contributors, all of whom want to meet George Clooney.
Who can run a serious government in between such a peripatetic schedule? Air Force One has been used, on average, every other day of the Obama presidency. In four years as president, Abraham Lincoln never even went to New York City. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to go to a foreign country; Obama has been to 32.
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney has to work harder for his sound bites, but he reminds me of those TV anchormen who interrupt “Judge Judy” to announce: “New revelations on the Obama deficit fraud. More at 6.” The screen freezes to an image of an anchorman with perfect teeth and hair — who looks just like Romney.
One reason this campaign has descended into a game show (“Who Wants to Be a President?”) is because the Original Intenters at the 1787 Constitutional Convention disagreed about the office of the chief executive.
Alexander Hamilton and John Adams wanted the head of state to have the aura of a European monarch, if not lifetime tenure or hereditary succession. Benjamin Franklin and others preferred the Swiss model — under which the office of the chief executive would be made up of a rotating federal council, so no one person would become an elected monarch.
At early State of the Union addresses, members of Congress debated passionately about whether they needed to stand up when the president entered the chamber — fearful that it would show undue reverence for just another public official.
Imagine telling those early members of Congress that the president now travels abroad with an entourage that reportedly includes “500 staff, 200 Secret Service agents, six doctors, personal chefs and the president’s own food and water, 35 vehicles, four speechwriters, 12 teleprompters and 15 sniffer dogs,” according to factchecker.org.
One reason that Obama spends so many of his days in the vacuous rounds of a British monarch — greeting the Chicago Bears, taking Bo to the mall — is because he has little chance to implement his legislative agenda, at least while Republicans control the House.
Because the Constitution is mute on the subject of political parties, no provision was made in government for a prime minister. Some countries, like France, have a president and a prime minister. But the U.S. combines the duties of the two in one position — though the president often lacks a majority of his party in one or both houses of Congress, leading to stalemates.
About all Obama can now do in Congress is to support bills (see the “Buffett rule” tax plan) that he knows will be turned down, then complain that the GOP majority is coddling billionaires.
Instead of being the most powerful man in the world, the U.S. president has become little more than a talk show host, not unlike Dr. Phil — obliged to script a daily program that has tragedy (Trayvon Martin), concern (meeting with autoworkers), music (the slow jam) and something upbeat (solar energy factory tour).
If electing a president costs $1 billion and takes up all of our time, maybe the solution isn’t yet another ratings sweep between two teleprompted anchors but to change the office?
The Swiss model, which so enticed Franklin and Jefferson, runs like this: The major political parties in the Senate and House elect, according to their political strength, the members of a seven-member federal council. This body, in turn, selects the main Cabinet jobs.
Each year, one member of the council serves as the president — to greet foreign leaders and speak for Switzerland in a crisis. The real chief executive, however, is the entire federal council, not one person. In recent years, the president has often been a woman.
by Matthew Stevenson
Matthew Stevenson is a Swiss-based writer, author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical essays. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper’s Magazine.
(Reprinted with permission from New Geography)
Given that no one likes Switzerland’s banks, coo-coo clocks, high prices, smugness, dull cities, cheesy foods, or yodeling, I realize that it is too early to speak politically about “the Swiss Model.”
But it needs to be pointed out that while the European Union evaporates and Homeland America goes for broke, the world’s second oldest democracy (1291) has trade and budget surpluses, a multi-lingual population, a green network of trains and buses to every village, excellent public schools, and a federal-style government that is closer to Thomas Jefferson’s America than the bureaucratic monarchy that gives the king’s speeches in Washington.
Yes, the Swiss recently voted against the construction of minarets (NIMCP or “not in my cow pasture”) and for the eviction of immigrants convicted of serious crimes. (Would you vote “for” protecting the immigration rights of the rapist next door?) But a quarter of the students in Geneva’s public schools are foreign, and—in the age of focus groups and slick pollsters—the democracy remains in the hands of its citizenry, for better or for worse, which every two months votes on the referendums of the critical issues. On this month’s ballot is gun control.
A mythical Swiss story involves a man on a morning bus, chatting with someone standing near him, exchanging pleasantries about work and the weather, and discovering that his commuting friend is also the president of the Swiss confederation.
I had a similar experience. I had arrived at the Geneva Press Club on my bike, and discovered that the woman sitting near me was also the president, Micheline Calmy-Rey. To be clear, she was at the front of the room, and I was in the audience. But her unassuming manner was that of a bus commuter, and had she walked into the room unescorted, I would not have marked her as the leader of the country.
In a way, she is not. To be president of Switzerland is to be the head of a seven person federal council, whose members are apportioned according to the political parties in the parliament. Real power in the country remains vested in the villages and in the twenty-six cantons. Think of the Swiss president as the unlucky committee person who has to keep the minutes.
After the European revolutions of 1848, Switzerland adopted a federal constitution, in part modeled on the American system, although instead of the imperial presidency (which Jefferson called “a bad edition” of the Polish king), the Swiss went for an executive council. Benjamin Franklin had the same idea earlier for the U.S., but lost out to the more presidential Adams and Madison.
by Kerri Walker
Ed. note: Kerri Walker, who ran the marathon, moved to the Lake Geneva region from New Jersey, USA, a few weeks ago.
This year marked the 18th running of the Lausanne Marathon. Marathon runners from over 60 countries and cities took off from Place de Milan in Ouchy, Lausanne at 10:10 Sunday 31 October. Marathon runners enjoyed optimal conditions from start to finish, with just some headwind through Cully en route to the finish at the Olympic Museum back in Ouchy. The marathon course, composed of rolling hills, went out to La Tour de-Peliz at which point runners turned around to go back to Ouchy for a picturesque finish in front of the Lausanne Olympic Museum.
There were 1,163 men and 180 women running the marathon. The first male, Hailu Begashow (1984) of Ecublens in canton Vaud, finished in two hours 20 minutes and two seconds.
The first female, Di Marco Messmer Magali (1971) from Troistorrents, finished in two hours, 54 minutes, and 10 seconds. Prize money was given to the top five men and women finishers.
Geneva was well represented at Lausanne’s marathon: about 300 Genevans raced last weekend. The highlights came from the 10km and marathon.
- Genevan Antonio Texeira (1956), who ran the marathon, placed first in his class of 205 men. His time was two hours and 51 minutes.
- Marc Baudat (1977) ran the 10km, finishing second in his class in 32 minutes and 50 seconds.
- Also in the 10km: Oliveira Narciso (1957) finished first in his class in 34 minutes 24 seconds
- Felfele Testay (1985) finished third in his class of 2,036 with a time of 30 minutes three seconds.
Lausanne and its people made for exceptional hosts to marathon runners. The night before the race, all runners and walkers were welcome to enjoy a complimentary pasta party held on the Lausanne paddlewheeler docked in Ouchy. Fuel was provided along the race course, with water, power gels, and powerade provided at 10 revitalization stations. Marathon runners were also fuelled by live music and enthusiastic spectators: “Hop! Allez!” they shouted to runners all the way to the end, in front of Le Musee Olympique. Runners could enjoy a free entry to the museum on marathon weekend. All who finished received a Suisse medal, and results of finishers were posted immediately.
For me, the Lausanne Marathon was especially memorable, being my first European marathon (I am from New Jersey and moved to Thoiry in France two months ago to work as an au pair). I ran three marathons in the US (Philadelphia, New York, and Miami). I try not to compare the marathons to one another; they are all different based on location and size of the race.
Lausanne stood out in my mind as the marathon with the beautiful scenery and traditional laid-back European Sunday atmosphere. The out and back course had an amazing backdrop of the mountains and lake. People waved and cheered along the streets and in their homes they shouted out the window. Many kids got their hands clapped by runners. I soaked up the spirit of the Lausanne Marathon—I clapped hands, said “Merci” to the spectators, and smiled for the pictures being taken. I did not feel like I was competing but rather just out for a long, Sunday run in a beautiful part of Switzerland.
While enjoying myself, I managed to PR (runner’s lingo for personal record) in three hours and 25 minutes. Ecstatic to have run so well, and feeling great, I went back to the finish just a half hour after my race to visit the Olympic Museum. I spent about an hour marvelling at the history of the Olympic Games then returned to see the results, already posted in Ouchy.
The Lausanne Marathon was very well organized and runners were excited to see the standings immediately. And to commemorate the weekend and the achievement, every runner’s medal is engraved with a picture of the Lausanne boat where we dined the night before the race. From start to finish, the marathon was well organized and I was able to concentrate on my run and enjoy my time in Lausanne.
I give the Lausanne Marathon Weekend two thumbs up!
By Tambako the Jaguar on flickr
Tambako the Jaguar, a Neuchatel photographer who frequently visits Switzerland’s zoos and shares his beautiful photos of animals on flickr, visited the young bear cubs in Bern last week (18 June).
The bears were born in December and are named Urs and Berna, but for now even the Baerengraben zookeepers are unsure if they are male and female.
Background story, Bern’s bears, GenevaLunch
By Bill Harby, ExpatCH
Can you hear it? Can you hear that magical sound outside my window?
Well of course you can’t, but I hope you’ll forgive my silliness because I’m under the spell of perhaps the most quintessential Swiss sound there is. No, not the ticking of a 5,000-franc watch. Nor the whistle of another approaching train that has arrived exactly on time down to the second. Nor the drone of alpine horns in the Ricola commercial. Nor even a yodeling fraulein bouncing her arpeggios off of alpine peaks.
No, I’m talking about cowbells, of course.
A few days ago, I was sitting at my desk madly trying to make a deadline when that suddenly became impossible thanks to the melodious clanging of bells tumbling through my window.
I live across the lane from a farm. The field right outside is planted with oats and alfalfa that is destined to be hay for cowfeed. But just beyond is a rolling pasture that has been getting thicker each day with long grass and buttery bright dandelions. I’d read that one of the signs of Swiss spring is when the cows return from their winter barns into the pastures. Now, here came 10 very happy cows, gamboling through the grass like death-row cellmates who’d just gotten liberating DNA test results. And each one wore a wide leather collar upon which hung a big brass bell.
Their music reminded me of a girl’s bell choir I once heard in a church, except the cows weren’t wearing lacy dresses, and their bells were full of chaotic joy.
Of course, I’m anthropomorphizing worse than William Wordsworth, but cut me some slack, I’ve never lived by a farm before.
Now, here I sit on this otherwise silent Sunday morning, again watching the happy music-making cows even as I type, and I am happy too. Such a bucolic scene is utterly charming to a suburb-bred American, especially since I know those munching cows are cheese machines on the hoof. For I am a new and enthusiastic fan of Swiss cheeses — but my pilgrimage to Gruyère is a story for another time.
This morning, I am half tempted to go frolic with those contented cows, but of course, then I would also be frolicking with fresh, steaming cow pies. I think I’ll just go have a chunk of cheese, instead.
And by the way, if I ever write about being sick of the incessant, monotonous, tuneless noise of cowbells! just hit me in the face with one of those cowpies.
By Bill Harby
Expatch, the Swiss (mis)adventures of a CH-ophile writer & photographer from Hawai’i
I’ve been doing a lot of driving recently, and am happy to say that I am no longer terrified of causing an international fender-bender incident because I didn’t know whether a certain sign meant I was going the wrong way on a dead-end street, which, if you think about it, is impossible anyway, even though I’m pretty sure I was doing exactly that the other day on a street with alarming red and blue signs apparently telling me not to proceed and not to go the opposite direction.
Negotiating Swiss streets requires speed-reading. There are signs over the road and beside the road, and even signs written right on the road. It’s kind of like playing 3-D chess. Fighter pilots are required to have superb “3-dimensional situational awareness.” Ditto for European drivers, for whom the next piece of life-saving information could be written virtually anywhere, including on that window-box of tulips outside the neighborhood bordello.
My favorite European traffic device is the ubiquitous rond-point. This is a circle of roadway that appears at many intersections. Instead of having to hit the brakes at a stop sign even if you can see that there’s not another vehicle within hundreds of meters, drivers decide for themselves whether or not they can safely glide into the circle and proceed to their chosen connecting street without infringing upon the grillwork of another driver. Even better, a rond-point is often covered with a mound of beautiful flowers or an interesting mosaic of bricks or stonework, allowing traffic to freely flow around it like chi around a lovely mandala.
Indeed, in the USA we sometimes call the rond-point a “traffic-calming circle,” or a “roundabout.” But mostly we don’t call it anything because it mostly doesn’t exist in our country.
In Hawai‘i, my previous home, there is little that is calming about such circles. When the county government announced plans to put in only the second roundabout in the state, certain concerned citizens all but mounted an insurrection, sending out a public letter calling on their neighbors to resist this crazy foreign idea, and instead “order up four stop signs … and tell the mayor and the Neighborhood Board to go away.”
But why do Americans have such antipathy towards this obviously efficient and graceful traffic device?
One day a few years ago, after considerable rond-point traffic observation from the vantage point of a Parisian sidewalk café table eventually festooned with carefully arranged empty wine glasses standing in for traffic cones, I figured out why Europeans love the roundabout and Americans loathe it. Europeans love it because they get to make their own Existential choice whether to brake or play poulet with that tilting Heineken truck heading around toward them. It’s that liberté thing. In the U.S. of A., we prefer a good sturdy stop sign because it’s completely clear what we’re supposed to do. Plus, it gives us excellent supporting evidence for our personal injury lawsuit.
In Peseux, the village just downhill from my house, there’s a place where two rond-points nearly touch each other. Together they form a sort of figure-eight. Or an infinity sign. I have to admit that this arrangement is rather too deep for me to comprehend yet. So tomorrow I plan to drive around both of them until things clarify — or until I’m chased down by a cop. But I’m sure that won’t be a problem. Certainly we’ll both be very calm.
by Andy Sundberg
Andy Sundberg is a committee member of American Citizens Abroad (ACA), which is based in Geneva, Switzerland
Background: “US, Switzerland ‘initial’ revised double taxation agreement”, 19 June 2009, GenevaLunch
There is, alas, much more to this story than what has appeared in print so far.
When ACA first learned about these negotiations, a few weeks ago, we asked the U.S. Embassy staff in Bern to help us arrange a meeting with the U.S. Delegation from Washington that would be coming to negotiate with the Swiss Government in Bern. All of their attempts were rebuffed.
We then asked members of the U.S. Embassy staff in Bern to please transmit our written requests to the team. What we hoped to see happen was for this revised agreement with Switzerland to include provisions that were already contained in some other recently revised double taxation agreements with other countries. We had learned that such provisions were supposed to become standard components of all future double taxation treaty revisions.
Peter Gaechter is a Lake Geneva area resident who occasionally contributes GenevaLunch guest blog posts on a variety of topics.
by Peter Gaechter
My wife and I looked at each other and half-shrugged. “A little disappointing”, she said. I agreed. The Rodin érotique exhibition at the Fondation Gianadda in Martigny, Valais, which closed 14 June, left a little to be desired, we thought. I have often had this feeling at Gianadda, too often for it to be a fluke.
Nyon film festival 2009
by Jillian Hudson
The very essence of waiting and wanting seep through the screen in Bettina Haasen’s, “Hotel Sahara.” Heart-stopping cinematography coupled with a haunting soundtrack made this a film to remember. Haasen gives a voice to the dreams and desires of Africans in the westernmost point in Mauritania where they wait to attempt an illegal crossing to Spain by sea.
In “C’est Notre Histoire,” the filmmaker Frank Wimart retraces the trajectory of his absentee father’s life, beginning from the younger Wimart’s 30th year to the moment his father, Jean-Pierre literally sailed away from the family 25 years before. As Wimart unwravels his father’s convoluted past, he begins to discover if not to understand, the injuries that plagued Jean-Pierre and made him capable of abandoning his wife and young child.