This weekend The New York Times ran an article about how President Obama intends to use more of the executive powers available to him in an effort to push his agenda forward. At the beginning of this year historian Garry Wills, professor of history emeritus at Northwestern University and Pulitzer Prize winner, published Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State.
The book traces how since the advent of the atomic bomb executive authority has expanded in ways that are outside the Constitutional bounds of the founder’s intent for a government with three separate and equal branches of government. Presidents from Truman to Bush II have, as Wills demonstrates, usurped the power of the courts and the legislative branches in the name of national security.
As Wills notes, the presidency of George W. Bush took this expansion to an entirely new level after 9/11 with legal opinions that granted him nearly unparalleled authority to ignore Congressional oversight and laws – even those the president signed, such as the prohibition of torture – and the courts.
In effect, the presidency has become so powerful – no matter who holds the office and no matter their intentions – as to mimic the authority of the king disposed of by the American Revolution, at least as it relates to national security.
Wills concludes his book with these words:
Perhaps, in the nuclear age, the Constitution has become quaint and obsolete. Few people even consider, anymore, Madison’s lapidary pronouncement, “In republican government the legislative authority, necessarily, predominates” (The Federalist 51)…
Nonetheless, some of us some of us entertain a fondness for the quaint old Constitution. It may be too late to return to its ideals, but the effort should be made. As Cyrano said, “One fights not only in the hope of winning.”
Agreed. Wills book would have been more helpful, however, if it offered concrete ideas for governmental reforms that both respect the founder’s intent in creating a republican form of democracy and the realities of the modern world – so far removed from the days of Washington and Jefferson…when news traveled slowly and there was more time for debate and thoughtful reflection.
Regardless, Wills’ assessment of the problems with the system are clearly spot on and our democracy remains at risk if we fail to heed his warnings.