When George Washington was preparing to take office, everybody wondered what to call him. Senators proposed lofty titles like “Illustrious Highness” and “Sacred Majesty.”
But Washington expressed irritation at such fawning, so today we are led by a modest “Mr. President.” Later, Washington surrendered office after two terms, underscoring that institutions prevail over personalities and that, in the words of the biographer Ron Chernow, “the president was merely the servant of the people.”
That primacy of our country’s institutions over even the greatest of leaders has been a decisive thread in American history, and it’s one reason President Trump is so unnerving. His firing of James Comey can be seen as simply one element of a systematic campaign to undermine the rule of law and democratic norms.