Friday, September 21, 2007

My Friend Mario

My current research project is part memoir and part history, and as a part of I have had occasion to contact many of my old friends, including many friends from elementary school that I haven’t spoken to in over forty years. It has been greatly rewarding for me to get in touch with my old school chums.

I lived in the Bronx until I was ten, in a heavily Italian area in the East Bronx, near Belmont and Arthur Avenues, sometimes referred to as the Bronx’s “Little Italy.” One of my friends was a boy named Mario Venturini. We spent a lot of time playing with our chemistry sets, trying to blow things up, or try to make noxious smelling concoctions to gross out our younger brothers. I moved to Queens in 1964, and haven't heard from Mario since.

One thing that I remember about Mario is that his family wasn’t Italian, precisely, but was proud of its roots in the tiny republic of San Marino, on the Italian peninsula.

So doing a google search for Mario, the most likely candidate I find is a Mario Venturini who has served several terms as one of San Marino’s “captains regent” (capitani reggenti.) A “captains regent” in San Marino is a political institution based on the old Roman Republican office of consul. Two persons, of different political parties, are elected for six months term, to share executive power. I have no idea if my old friend Mario has ascended to the heights of Sammarine politics, but if so, its rather cool.

I sort of like the idea of Roman consuls, and it seems to be the founding fathers made a mistake when, in writing the US Constitution, they moved away from shared executive power as practiced in the Roman republic to the heavier form of executive power embodied in the US presidency. I don’t know how a consular form of government would have worked in the US, though it might be interesting to try it on a state level. It seems to be if we elected annual consuls in New York State, the “two men in a room” wouldn’t all that different than the current “three men in a room.”

But if I had to revive one office from the Roman Republic, it would be that of dictator. Now admittedly, the office of dictator has received a bad press over the centuries, and I’m not an expert on Roman history, and I don’t how it worked in practice, but here was the idea—in times of emergency, the regular functioning of consular government was suspended and one man was elected dictator, with almost unlimited powers—but it was understood that this was a strictly limited term of only six months, after which the government reverted to the consuls.

I think having a clear distinction between “regular” and “emergency” government is a brilliant idea, and its absence is one of the great flaws in our current constitutional framework. Over the past century, with every crisis, the presidency has gained additional powers, but when peacetime comes, these are never disgorged, but the presidency gets more and more powerful, and more and more eager to find excuses for the exercise of his wartime powers. As a result, we now live in a country in which it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between being at at war, and being at peace. Wars are never declared, and wars never end. We live in a state of perpetual emergency. One way around this would be to what the Romans did, and have short-term bursts of emergency power, after which we would be obliged return to regular civilian rule, with all the extra wartime powers eliminated.

Oh, I know that there are many problems with this idea, and it’s not very practical. But it worked in Rome for several hundred years (until Julius Caesar declared himself “dictator for life”) and maybe something like it is worth considering. At least when you elect someone to be dictator, you know what you’re getting.