Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Cult of the Presidency

The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power
© 2008 Gene Healy
264 pages

 Every four years, men and women with permanently-fixed smiles assure us that they will end corruption in D.C, get the economy moving, and end our trouble overseas, if only we will elect them President.  The claims are bold – who could budge the vast federal bureaucracy or find a solution to the hornet’s nest that is the middle east? Yet a third of the American public seems willing to believe these and greater claims, from across the political spectrum. Throughout the 20th century, the  presidency has taken on great challenges, willfully or at the urging of the public, and gathered around itself the power to take on those challenges -- or try to.   In The Cult of the Presidency, David Healy argues that not only this is a significant departure from the Constitutionally-sanctioned purpose of the president, but such centralization constitutes a malignant force.  Not only is investing such power and hope in one man dangerous, but the breadth of ambitious and responsibilities we heap upon the president's shoulders is self-defeating.

Healy begins with the Constitution and revisits the intentions of the Founders through the Federalist papers. The republic existed in its Congress, which was granted the bulk of powers, including levying taxes and declaring war. What no one wanted was an elected king, even if Alexander Hamilton did bat around the idea that the president might serve for life.  There were fears, however, that Congress might amass too much power, and thus the executive's responsibility would be to not just carry out Congress' will, but refuse to do so if said will violated the Constitution.  The presidential oath is made not to care for and advance the needs of The People, but to protect the Constitution. For most of the 19th century,  executives held to their constitutional limits; Abraham Lincoln was an obvious exception, serving as he did in extraordinary circumstances. But most of the 19th century executives were forgettable men; how many Americans could even identify men like Franklin, Garfield, and Hayes as presidents?  The opening of the 20th century, however,  revealed a very different presidency. Wealth and power were increasing, and as money and science transformed the nation, they created a distinctly modern mindset. It declared that the power to create the future was in its hands; no institution was spared from novel attempts at completely restructuring them, sometimes in response to the new dangers of the modern era. The presidency, too, empowered not just by wealth but by the ideology of progress, escaped its constitutional bounds to become new creature.   Although lapses in presidential restraint had already happened during the administrations of McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt,  Wilson was the architect of a new order.  An academic who believed the Constitution  had outlived its effective use, saw it as the president’s duty to conduct the Will of the People into action.  The president alone was voted in by the whole of the people; his was the voice that should guide the nation into the future, and the technology of the day allowed he and his successors to project their voice and exercise their will more ably, constitutional limits be damned. (And to the prisons with dissent!)

The world wars did great damage to the American political constitution, in focusing the public's attention through the radio onto the leader -- the leader, who  towered in imaginations, who could view the global conflict and distill all the information, creating a  battle plan.  As the twentieth century progressed, the ambitions of the presidency became ever more ambitious. The president was not merely spearheading a war against a particular foreign power; he was the Leader of the Free World,  casting a watchful eye over the entire globe to save it from the spectre of communism. At home, ambitions were no less awe-inspiring,  as Nixon, Johnson, Reagan and others sought to rid American society of substance abuse and poverty,  companions of the human race from the word go.  Now, when a shooting erupts, or a hurricane  washes over a city, the president is expected to arrive and say soothing things, like daddy reassuring frightened children.  Because one of the few active roles allotted to him by the Constitution is that of Commander-in-Chief,  presidential ambition has been matched by growing and inappropriate use of the military, both abroad and at home.  Although the Vietnam war and Nixon's resignation did tremendous damage to the esteem of the presidency, "Superman Returned" after 9/11, when George W. Bush became the defiant face of the nation toward terrorism.  Whatever he did, he was doing it to Make America Safe, and he didn't need a permission slip to do it -- L'état est George.   

The problem with all this power accruing to the presidency isn't just that it is merely unconstitutional, or manifestly dangerous in the abuses that have already occurred and continue to occur. (There's no shortage: the freewheeling ability to call anyone a terrorist and make them disappear, tried only in secret by the military;  drone assassinations without explicit congressional sanction, even of American citizens;  widespread data collection, and it goes on and on.)   There are limits in nature itself that ensure that the presidency is never as effective as it desires.  American foreign policy in the middle east, for instance, seems to be nothing more than a self-perpetuating stream of debacles. We meddle in Iran, and made an enemy; we used Iraq to attack them, and armed a madman; we attacked the madman, and created ISIS.  Nearer to home, the president may be the object of all our hopes and fears, but he can't stop hurricanes and the economy is not a machine to be manipulated. Like nature, it fights back.   Even when things seem to be going merrily, it's of little avail: the public only cares what fresh triumphs Caesar has wrought. If the economy tanks right before an election, woe to the incumbent party.  All this assumes the president is making competent decisions to begin with, when throughout the 20th century the office-holder has become increasingly isolated from reality -- surrounded by the party faithful and underlings who are awed by the office or have no incentive to tell him he's erring. So much power and adulation is not only dangerous to governance, but to the mental health of the occupant,  held in godlike awe and expectation to fix all the problems, and offer or at least project strength and comfort when a crisis erupts.   

What's the solution? Well, there isn't one, really. Congress can impose limits on the president, as it did with the War Powers act, but it has to be willing to hold him accountable. These days, Congress' chief function seems to be to pay lobbyists and run for office.  Ultimately, reigning in the cult may lie in waking up the cultists, the American people, who instead of being Egyptians genuflecting before Pharoah,  should return to their 18th century roots of viewing with deep suspicion any man presuming to order their lives about.  The current slate of men and women offers little hope in that regard, however, as the adulating masses cheering on Trump and Sanders obviously believe that one man can overcome reality itself.  There may be hope, however, in the fact that two figures with no real affiliation or loyalty to their party have populist support; it is a signal that Americans are weary of business as usual and might respond to third-party approaches.

(Happy president's day.)
Related:Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty, Ivan Eland.
The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government, F.H. Buckley. Argues that an over-responsible president or prime minister is a problem not only for the United States, but for the United Kingdom and Canada as well.  I read this last July and will read it again this year in hopes of giving it a proper review. Cult of the Presidency was read last January and again last July.


  1. As a history junkie, I look forward to reading this one. Thanks for feeding my addiction!
    FYI, I've moved all blogging activities to a new site: Beyond Walden Pond.

  2. I picked up a book a few weeks ago that you might like. I haven't read it yet (I could say that about so many books) but it looks interesting:

    The Myth of the Strong Leader - Political Leadership in the Modern Age by Archie Brown.

  3. @R.T: Thank you for the heads up. I'll look forwarding to seeing some Thoreau-esque reflections on where we're headed these days.

    @Cyberkitten: Ooh! That does sound promising.

  4. As you're likely to read it first [grin] I'll look forward to your review!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.


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