For obvious reasons, the Papacy is not a hereditary office. The College of Cardinals will convene to pick John Paul II’s successor beginning on April 18. But the Papacy is a monarchy-one of the few that wields real power, even if it commands no divisions. The televised images of red clerical robes aswirl outside the baroque railway station of St. Peter’s seem to come from another world.
The world had more worlds in it as recently as a century ago. My mother-in-law died last year, age 92. When she was born, the emperor of China had only just been deposed. The Ottoman Empire was ruled by a sultan who was also caliph-commander of the faithful. Kaisers ruled the German and Austro-Hungarian empires; the Russian Empire was ruled by a czar. While she was still a girl, all these were swept away.
The etiquette of the Papacy is more democratic than it once was, but the Pope still stands out among world leaders. Consider his wardrobe: Most heads of state could slip into a board meeting, or a banquette at Michael’s, without causing a ripple. Not the Pope. If clothes make the man, then unmodern clothes make an unmodern man.
The day after the Pope’s funeral, one of the last hereditary monarchies was having a much worse time of it. The wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles looked for all the world like one of those tacky-pretentious affairs we’ve all seen, leaving an Upper East Side church in a carriage drawn by a white horse painted with black spots. Was it for this that Alfred fought the Danes, that Charles I went calmly to the block, or that Edward VIII felt obliged to abdicate?
In 1981, when Prince Charles married the first time, Britain rolled out all the considerable pageantry it could muster. The monarchy had had no real power for many years. But it was still felt to be an indispensable element in the somewhat irrational system of the British state-a channel of historical continuity, a symbolic limit to plebiscitary fiat, a reserve of dignity for a nation now great mostly in the past tense, but still not to be written off. The grim farce of Charles, Diana and Camilla, and the looming encore of Harry and William, reduce the House of Windsor to a reality-TV show. Joan Rivers was invited to the wedding; why not Anna Nicole Smith?
For an instance of government-making as it is now done, look at Iraq, where Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Jalal Talabani were sworn in as interim prime minister and president, respectively. Saddam Hussein reportedly watched the proceedings from his cell. The Holy Spirit and royal genes have been replaced by the choice of the people. (Partisans of both monarchy and democracy sometimes claim that the Holy Spirit guides their systems, but that would take us into theology.) The fashion is so universal that even murderous brutes like Saddam, Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro ape it, claiming to be ratified in electoral charades. But Iraq is going through the real thing.
How long it took them to reach this point, and how many doubted their progress. Iraq’s ethnic tensions would shiver the country into fragments. The insurgents commanded the loyalty-or the fear-of most Iraqis. January’s elections would have to be postponed in order to woo the Sunni Arabs. The bickering of the interim National Assembly after January’s vote would cause the brave, purple-fingered electorate to lose confidence. But Iraq and America persisted.
For what? Demagogy, rent-seeking, obscurantism, incompetence-all the features of democratic life that we know from the Christian Coalition, the AARP, the Supreme Court and the New York City Council. But in the welter, people will have a say in ruling themselves, and, equally important, will feel that they have a say in ruling themselves. It is a recognition of what Rousseau called amour de soi, and what John Paul II called the dignity of the person. Added bonus: Uday and Qusay will do less raping.
All these political systems, ancient and modern, conduct their business under the eye, at once saturnine and hysterical, of the media. Who creates the media? The people themselves, with their appetite for news and stimulation. Who writes the stories? A billion hacks, from Bill Keller to frothblog.com, not one of them as responsible to the public as the lowliest clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Media is the dark twin of democracy, never separated since birth.
The last Pope, as Bono said, was the best front man the Catholic Church ever had. Will the inevitable failure of his successor to match up cause a reaction to an office and a church lifted, this last quarter of a century, to rock ‘n’ roll heights?
Ask the Windsors. They tried to play the media game, flaunting their drum-and-trumpets trappings while doling out selected bits of humanizing information to what they imagined might be a controllable press. In sweet, shy Diana Spencer, they seemed to have hit the jackpot. Now, after the bulimia and the tampons and the tears, the wind blows through the wreckage of what they once were.
How cruelly the media cuffs Iraq, and our efforts there. Before the fall of Saddam, all they offered-apart from John Burns-were opaque Baathist press releases. Now that everything can be known, everything bad is known. The daily wire is a parade of bombs, raids and kidnappings. The think pieces recycle a perverse Orientalism of turbulent darkies, unknowable and ungovernable.
But sometimes the media bites the bad guys, too. On the eve of the January elections, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi unwisely issued a declaration of “bitter war against democracy and all those who seek to enact it.” So Osama bin Laden, the self-anointed Saudi-Yemeni caliph, and Mr. al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian emir of the Land of the Two Rivers, were telling Iraqis to stay home and obey them. Bad move. Human pride, human ignorance and the omnivorous amorality of those who write about them are in a three-legged race for the years and decades ahead.