Presidential Power

I read Garry Wills’ BOMB POWER: THE MODERN PRESIDENCY AND THE NATIONAL SECURITY STATE which I found to be a fast moving and interesting book, but one which led me to be concerned about the direction of our country.  This is the 2nd blog in a series based on Wills book, the first is Super Power: Is The Bomb America’s True or only strength?

A few quotes from the book:

“There were a large number of people in the State Department when I took over who were certain I did not know what was going on in the world, and they tried to keep me from finding out.”   (President Harry Truman)

“Accountability is the essence of democracy.  If people do not know what their government is doing, they cannot be truly self-governing.”  (Wills)

The above statement is one of Wills’ major concerns – the more secrecy the government undertakes, the less we the people know about what they are doing.  Some fear only what they see the government doing or what they fear the government is going to do.  So some fear the new health care proposals as creating even a bigger government.  But the government continues to grow, and truly in a “Big Brother” capacity, in its secrecy – both in what is kept secret from “we the people” and the amount that is being kept secret.  Some fear “socialism” creeping in through health care reform, but a form of big government/brother perhaps of bigger concern and threat to our freedoms is the huge and growing secret parts of our government:  secret weapons, surveillance, covert operations, secret trials and interrogations which much more closely resemble some of the worst aspects of Soviet socialism of the 20th Century.  

“And Truman found out what others would learn after him, that presidential wars may be easy to start but they are almost impossible to end.”  (Wills)

It quickly became apparent to any person who has considerable experience with classified material that there is massive overclassification, and that the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security but rather with governmental embarrassment of one sort or another.”   (Erwin Griswold, Solicitor General under President Nixon)

When Cheney became Vice President in 2001, he and his legal advisor, David Addington, asked the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to rule that the President, and he alone, has all authority over war – exactly the opposite of the constitutional grant of all such authority to Congress. …   Cheney said the Constitution was irrelevant to executive power.”  (Wills)

“It was (John) Yoo’s job to invent the legal rationales for actions universally seen as illegal before 9/11. Yoo came to the task with preformed certitudes about the limitless extent of presidential prerogative.  …  His President is ‘the sovereign,’ and sovereignty is by definition free of external control. …  Even in England, the sovereign was ‘the king in Parliament.’  Yoo would make the President more powerful than the monarch we renounced in 1776.”  (Wills)

Makes me wonder, all those who now fear big government – why not question the secret big government that Cheney advocates (“limitless power”!).  And with Obama in power, maybe that will cause neo-cons to recognize the blindness that their drive to empower the presidency with supreme power represents, and the threat to the U.S. constitution.   Why is the Tea Party silent on this form of big government. secretive operations and big government secretive spending? 

“A declaration that there shall be war is not an execution of laws: it does not suppose pre-existing laws to be executed; it is not in any respect an act merely executive.  It is, on the contrary, one of the most deliberative acts that can be performed… In the general distribution of powers, we find that of declaring war expressly vested in the Congress, where every other legislative power is declared to be vested, and without any other qualification than what is common to every other legislative act.  The constitutional idea of this power would seem then clearly to be that it is of a legislative and not an executive nature…. Those who are to conduct  a war cannot in the nature of things be proper or safe judges whether a war ought to be commenced, continued or concluded.  They are barred from the latter functions by a great principle in free government analogous to that which separates the sword form the purse, or the power of executing from the power of enacting laws.”  (James Madison, founding father of the U.S., “Father of the Bill of Rights,” President, commentator on the Constitution)

   Madison once wrote that those generations who declare war ought to pay for the entire enterprise and not leave expenses to future generations.  He thought this would curtail the desire to go to war.  He felt the problem with having a standing army is that the government will not be able to resist the temptation to put it to use.  No doubt he felt having the congress rather than the president be responsible for declaring and going to war would curtail the number of wars the country declared since it is harder to get a majority to agree than to have one executive officer engage in whatever adventurism he is wont to do.  Presidents in the last 50 years have found plenty of reason to go off to war, without the constitutionally mandated approval of congress.

Next:  Power:  Congressional and American