Friday, May 02, 2008

Gene Healy on The Cult of the Presidency

Last night I went to hear Gene Healy of the Cato Institute speak about his new book, The Cult of the Presidency, at the Goldwater Institute. I had a chance to speak to him briefly before his talk, and said I'd buy a copy of his book if I liked his talk. I did like his talk, and did buy his book--the clincher was the "illegal" cover of his book. He said that he had sent the galleys to John Dean, former Nixon White House counsel who has become a vocal critic of overreaching executive power, for a blurb, only to receive word back from Dean that his book cover violates U.S. law regarding the use of the presidential seal. (This was ironic in light of Healy's previous book, Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything.) The Onion was sent a cease-and-desist letter by the Bush administration in 2005 for using the presidential seal on its website. In my non-lawyerly opinion, neither The Onion nor the book are actually in violation of the law since the law prohibits the use of the presidential seal in a commercial context that suggests presidential endorsement or approval, and it's pretty obvious in both cases that no presidential endorsement or approval is implied.

Healy's talk criticized the expansion of executive power from the original description in the U.S. Constitution. While George Washington described himself as "chief magistrate" and refused to start wars with the Indians without Congressional approval, subsequent presidents have expanded their power. Academics of both conservative and liberal stripes have ranked as the "best presidents" those who have engaged in bold exercises of power, while those who have taken more limited roles in line with the Constitution are ranked among the worst (such as Warren G. Harding, whom Healy identified as the best president). Even William Henry Harrison, who served only 30 days as president, receives low poll rankings. By contrast, presidents such as Woodrow Wilson (whom Healy identified as the worst president, for actions such as throwing Eugene V. Debs in jail for criticizing the draft) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who put 110,000 Japanese into internment camps and attempted to subvert the U.S. Supreme Court by packing it with six additional appointees loyal to him) are identified as among the best presidents in polls.

And today, we have Hillary Clinton saying that she's prepared to be "commander-in-chief of our economy" from the moment she takes office, yet that's clearly not the job of the president described in the Constitution, where the only reference to CIC is "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States." Healy identified his first moment of apprehension that things had gotten ridiculous about public expectations of the role of the president as a 1992 presidential town hall debate, in which Denton Walthall said (p. 132 of Healy's book):
The focus of my work as a domestic mediator is meeting the needs of children that I work with, by way of their parents, and not the wants of their parents. And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the two of you, the three of you to met our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it ... [emphasis in Healy]
None of the candidates challenged Walthall's assumption that citizens of the United States should be treated "symbolically" as children of a president-father.

Healy also spoke about what he called "situational Constitutionalism," where Republicans oppose expansions of executive power when a Democrat is president, but are happy to expand it with a Republican president, and Democrats do the opposite. It occurred to me that the timing of his book could lead to such a criticism of his work, except that he has been a consistent critic of the Bush administration's abuses. It's too bad it didn't come out before Bush's re-election, though I doubt it would have made any more difference to the outcome than James Bovard's The Bush Betrayal, which came out in August 2004, just before that election.

In the Q&A, a self-identified liberal* asked if Healy thought that Bush was the worst abuser of executive power in light of his signing statements refusing to enforce, follow, or be bound by various laws. Healy answered that he didn't consider the signing statements to be the worst of Bush's actions, since at least they were written openly and not hidden. He said he considered the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII to be worse than anything Bush has done to date, and that he found other actions of Bush's to be worse than the signing statements, such as his warrantless wiretapping, his misuse of military commissions, elimination of habeas corpus, etc. He followed that up by saying that what he fears most from Bush's legacy is that by expanding executive power under a "time of war" doctrine for the "war on terror"--a war that will likely never end--he has effectively made the powers permanent. The similar abuses of the past were during wars that at least were temporary conditions.

I look forward to reading his book.

* There were a few liberals in attendance, including a member of the Green Party who asked me if it was considered gauche to go for seconds on the food provided--I said no, I was taking seconds myself.

UPDATE (May 6, 2008): Also see Mike Linksvayer's report on Healy's talk in San Francisco.


Hume's Ghost said...

Another book on this subject that I found pretty good (excellent, really) is Unchecked and Unbalance: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror.

"Commander in chief of the economy" sounds absolutely miserable to me ... I suppose Chalmers Johnson would argue that in one sense she is correct: due to our military Keynesian spending there isn't that great a distinction between the role of CinC and head of the economy.

Einzige said...

Here are some other reasons to conclude Wilson was possibly the worst US President.

Lippard said...

I've just started reading the book, and here are a few other quotes Healy gives from presidential candidates with odd conceptions of what the president's job is:

"America needs positive, optimistic leadership to kind of turn this country around, to see a revival of our national soul." -- Mike Huckabee

"[Teddy Roosevelt] liberally interpreted the constitutional authority of the office" and "nourished the soul of a great nation." -- John McCain

And his opening pages have several quotes from George W. Bush, for whom the job of the president includes to "lift people's spirits as best as I possibly can and to hopefully touch somebody's sould be representing our country, and to let people know that while there was a dark day in the past, there's brighter days ahead" and to "answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."

Hume's Ghost said...

If you really want to see someone tear into Wilson google Walter Karp at Third World Traveler.

Karp HATED Wilson. Nevermind, I'll get the link myself since it has one of my favorite lines in it ...


"The triumph of Woodrow Wilson and the war party [World War I] struck the American republic a blow from which it has never recovered. If the mainspring of a republican commonwealth - its "active principle," in Jefferson's words-is the perpetual struggle against oligarchy and privilege, against private monopoly and arbitrary power, then that mainspring was snapped and deliberately snapped by the victors in the civil war over war."

This is the line I like: "In postwar America the entire country lived on fantasy and breathed propaganda."

Hume's Ghost said...

I used a gift card I got recently to purchase a copy of Healy's book. It was a close call between that and The Music of Pythagoras, though. This post likely tipped the scales in favor of Healy ... I may try to review it before the election comes around, but my eyes are biggers than my brain.

I used the remaining balance on the card towards a discount hardcover of Why Orwell Matters by Chris Hitchens.