Here's a quick quiz on American presidents:
The answers: (1) Franklin D. Roosevelt. (2) Woodrow Wilson. (3) Richard M. Nixon. (4) Harry S Truman. (5) George W. Bush.
These are a few of the presidential outrages during the past hundred years which Gene Healy discusses in The Cult of the Presidency. At least the first two of these presidents are widely admired. Indeed, he notes, the more presidents abuse their power, the more historians admire them for it.
In the nineteenth century and up to Wilson's time, the president was a very low-profile figure by comparison. There were exceptions, most notably Lincoln, who shut down newspapers and suspended habeas corpus. But things began to change with Theodore Roosevelt ("I should welcome almost any war"). Then Wilson came to office, bringing the US into a deadly European war and committing perhaps the worst violations of civil liberties in the nation's history. He was a social Darwinist and attacked the system of checks and balances: "The makers of the Constitution constructed the federal government upon a theory of checks and balances which was meant to limit the operation of each part and allow to no single part or organ of it a dominating force; but no government can be successfully conducted upon so mechanical a theory."
There was some relief after Wilson. Healy notes that bad as Harding's reputation is (and he was certainly a failure as a manager), he undid the bulk of Wilson's wartime incursions against Americans' freedom. But from Roosevelt on, things have gotten steadily worse, except for a period of public backlash in response to Nixon's crimes.
Curiously, Healy skips over Hoover with barely a word. Taft gets more coverage. Yet Hoover initiated most of the disastrous economic interventions by which he and Franklin Roosevelt turned the economic crisis of 1929 into almost two decades of depression.
By the time he gets to George W. Bush, the story will be familiar to most well-informed readers. Healy observes that Congress has grown increasingly deferent to the president over the decades. This perspective makes it a bit less surprising that Congress caved in repeatedly to Bush's tantrums, even as his popularity collapsed.
Healy sees the "romanticization of the presidency" as a principal factor in presidents' being able to grab so much power for themselves. This does seem to be true of most historians, who like big, powerful figures to give drama to their writings. But for the general public, I think that a short-sighted attempt to be practical is more to blame. Members of Congress get elected and re-elected (and re-elected and ...) by delivering money and favors to their contributors and lobbyists. Attention to national concerns doesn't keep them in office, and they want the president to sign their pork-barrel bills. Congress has more in common, functionally, with a den of thieves than a body of statesmen, and that kind of group needs a strong boss.'
The book offers a limited measure of hope. In some ways, people are more willing to criticize the president today than people of previous generations were. It's very unlikely Wilson's Espionage Act would get much support today. Still, unless there's a basic change in the way Americans think, it's unlikely presidential power will be reined in soon. Certainly Obama's demands that Congress pass his "stimulus" bill without taking the time to read it and his talking as if he knows how to run all the businesses in the country show there's been no broad withdrawal from imperial claims.
As with any book that covers a lot of ground, it's necessary to be cautious about the historical details cited. Healy cites Wilson as saying that "God ordained that I should be the next President of the United States" as established fact, though there was only one person who claimed to hear him say that. He says that "New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin delayed ordering mandatory evacuation until after Katrina hit New Orleans," but that isn't true.
The errors aren't critical, though, and The Cult of the Presidency offers a lot of insight into and perspective on the way the power of the White House has grown beyond all reasonable bounds.
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