What do President Biden and the cross-dressing Roman emperor Elagabalus have in common?
At first glance, not much. Biden is a decorous, one-wife-at-a-time guy. The epicene Elagabalus had many male lovers, four wives, a stream of concubines, and scandalized Rome by raping a Vestal Virgin. Biden has lived a life of public service. It will never be said of him, as the historian Edward Gibbon wrote of Elagabalus, that he “abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury” or that one of his most delicious amusements was “to subvert every law of nature and decency.”
Yet these two rulers of mighty polities do share a significant bond: both believe in biological endowments as suitable criteria for high public office.
Biden has just announced that whomever he picks as nominee for the Supreme Court will possess female sex and pigmented skin, neither property necessarily correlated with outstanding jurisprudential ability, so far as is known. Elagabalus, for his part, appointed a dancer as prefect of Rome, a charioteer as prefect of the watch, and a barber as prefect of provisions. All three and many other lesser officials were chosen on the basis of enormitate membrorum, as Gibbon delicately puts it—the size of their penises.
Before scoffing at Elagabalus’s system of personnel management, one should surely ask whether it is any worse a qualification for high public office than skin color or possession of a uterus. Indeed the more you think about it, the more merits you can see. Quite unlike Harvard’s method for selecting Asian applicants, Elagabalus’s is both objective and transparent. Money seems a chief requirement for becoming a U.S. Senator; is the size of one’s wallet any better predictor than the other thing of becoming a great senator?
As for Biden’s approach, one can only scratch one’s head at his improvidence in declaring his criterion in advance. If he had said, “I’m going to look for the best possible candidate,” and had then chosen a black woman jurist, everyone could assume that she was indeed the best available candidate, at least in the president’s honest estimation. But now that Biden has declared his biological criteria upfront, he has ruled out all men (50 percent of the population) and all nonblack women (another 44 percent), leaving a mere 6 percent of Americans as his eligible pool. His candidate will now forever be seen as the best of the 6 percent, a far cry from the best of them all. Doesn’t that do her a disservice—especially if she should prove to be, in fact, the best possible candidate?
The Elagabalus HR department may have fallen regrettably short on diversity and inclusion, but it had the great advantage over Biden’s of being neither partisan nor socially divisive. The implication of Biden’s language is that appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court—and if that, then why not all lesser offices?—should be selected on the basis not of merit but as part of a political spoils system, with quotas for each victim group identified by progressive activists. Must an LGBTQ individual fill the next Supreme Court vacancy? And after that, how about a migrant foreign worker? On this principle, all nine Court seats would be filled by a circus of less-than-stellar occupants, quickly destroying the court’s reputation as an able and impartial arbiter.
The best gift that Biden could give to all Americans, of whatever degree of wealth or hue of skin, is to support a fair and efficient workplace. That means a society where office is attained by merit, not the disruptive criteria of biology or politics. Instead, Biden is on track to be remembered as a lackluster president, distinguished only by an appointment system at least as ridiculous as that of the depraved teenage hedonist who ruled 1,800 years ago.
Photos: Win McNamee/Getty Images (left), PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images (right)