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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

The Evolving Presidency

(Reprinted from the issue of June 19, 2003)

Capitol BldgIt’s becoming painfully clear that the Bush administration’s obsessive warnings about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” were, to say the least, grossly exaggerated.

President Bush continues to insist that such weapons will be found, but even he has switched to the term “weapons program,” which suggests that their development was far from having reached the stage of an “imminent threat” to the United States.

Not that this amounts to more than a mild embarrassment for the administration. In American politics it doesn’t matter why you start a war, as long as you win it. James Polk waged the Mexican War on a very slender pretext, but he won big, and a carping freshman congressman named Abraham Lincoln lost his seat for trying to pin him down on just where the Mexicans had attacked the U.S.

The young officers who fought that war, including Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, would later serve in a much bloodier conflict. When Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, the two men spent the rest of the day in warm reminiscence. (Grant later wrote in his memoirs that he had always had grave reservations about the Mexican War.)

Bush is only the latest beneficiary of the apotheosis of the presidency, one of the most curious features of American history. The original idea of republicanism was opposition to monarchism and arbitrary power. The American president was to be a mere “executive,” a temporary officer who could be removed, peacefully, for bad behavior, including usurping powers that didn’t belong to the office.

The possibility of impeachment by Congress — the elected representatives of the people — was supposed to hang over him as a constant reminder to keep his oath of office to uphold the Constitution.

In England, deposing a king had been a bloody, convulsive business. The king was a semi-sacred figure, God’s anointed ruler, and overthrowing him was to risk divine wrath. The American president was to be a merely secular figure, with little or no sacred significance. He was not to be elected by the American people at large, but by a small temporary elite, the Electoral College.

How times have changed! Today the presidency has become quasi monarchical, with ceremonial and symbolic trappings the Founding Fathers never imagined (and would have abhorred). It even has some spiritual pretensions — think of Bill Clinton and his Bible. At the very least, the president is now expected to be a national “leader,” the center of our attention, author of our national agenda. As of 1950, when Harry Truman sent troops to Korea, he can wage war without a formal declaration from Congress.

Presidential elections have become gigantic spectacles, the center of our politics. The Electoral College is now a mere vestige, a formality that occurs after a long season — actually a couple of years — of campaigning, fundraising, advertising, and jockeying that actually decide the outcome. Because of the stupendous growth of state power, the centralization of that power, and the shift of so much of that power to the executive branch, the stakes are enormous, on a scale the Founding Fathers couldn’t have conceived.

A new dimension has been added by the similarly explosive growth of American power abroad. Given the president’s role in foreign policy, he becomes not only a quasi monarch, but a quasi emperor. Support for his imperial purposes can easily be turned into a sort of patriotic duty, a test of loyalty to America itself. And woe to other nations who oppose him!

Impeachment has also become a vestige. Only two presidents (Andrew Johnson and Clinton) have been impeached in more than two centuries, and a third (Richard Nixon) resigned in disgrace; none of the three was actually convicted. Surely others must have deserved to be removed during these long centuries; the Founders would be surprised and disappointed that it has happened so seldom. It means that a president, especially if he is popular, can afford to ignore the limits imposed by the Constitution.

In short, the American Republic today would be unrecognizable to the men who founded it. You may or may not like what it has turned into; but it is certainly not at all the thing it was designed to be. It has evolved into something else entirely, as we can see in every detail of its countless activities; and for those who assume that evolution means improvement, this may seem all to the good.

For those who prefer a government whose powers are, as James Madison put it, “few and defined,” it can only seem monstrous and incomprehensible. It means that law itself has become lawless, and abnormality normal.

Countless conservatives feel that the Clinton presidency was an aberration, and that normality has returned with George W. Bush. My own view is that this is still the country in which a Bill Clinton could not only thrive, but rise to the top; and as far as I can see, nothing much has changed since Bush took office. Bush is marginally less liberal than Clinton, and he has different purposes. But restoring the original Republic isn’t even on his agenda.

In every key respect, this is still Bill Clinton’s America.
Keeping Up with the Episcopalians

Am I the only one to be surprised? Up in New Hampshire, those crazy Episcopalians have elected their first openly gay bishop, one V. Gene Robinson. What surprised me was that this was a first. I’d assumed it was an Episcopalian tradition by now.

“We will show the world how to be a Christian community,” Robinson says humbly. He claims not only to be a Christian, but to be an exemplary one. After two millennia, the world will finally see what a real Christian community looks like! No matter how low Episcopalians sink, they never seem to lose the conviction that they are the spiritual elite.

Robinson had a wife and two children before deciding to “come out.” Today he lives with another man. Apparently they haven’t chosen to wait until they are married. (You mean Episcopalians don’t have same-sex marriages yet? Another surprise!)

Robinson still has to be, er, consecrated by the church’s national convention. Something tells me that if he actually becomes a bishop, he won’t be promoting the virtue of chastity very aggressively.
Forever Young

A few evenings ago I had the pleasure of dining with Fr. Ian Boyd, editor of The Chesterton Review. I’ve known Fr. Boyd since we were both young men; and now only he is young.

He’s still the tall, thin, gently witty man I met many years ago, and he hardly seems to have changed at all — though one of his brothers has just celebrated his 50th year in the priesthood.

Hard to believe, but the Review itself is now 30 years old. With inexhaustible fertility, it continues producing new material about Chesterton and his circle, and occasionally publishes previously unknown essays and poems by Chesterton himself. Congratulations to Fr. Boyd on a wonderful achievement.
Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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