Let's Knock The Presidency Down a Notch

The Orange County Register
December 22, 1998 Alan W. Bock, Senior Editorial Writer

The most constructive thing that could come from an extended national discussion surrounding impeachment and a Senate trial of the president would be a serious reconsideration of the role of the presidency in our national life. The emotional nature of some of the opposition to impeachment (as well as some of those plumping to kick out the scoundrel currently inhabiting the Oval Office) suggested that too many Americans have simply invested too much of themselves not just in the character of this president but in the presidency as an institution.

 The over-the-top rantings of liberal celebrities like Alan Dershowitz and Alec Baldwin (who "humorously" spoke on a comedy program of stoning Henry Hyde to death, and his family, too, for the mortal sin of continuing impeachment proceedings) have received some attention. But a similarly outsized case of presidency worship is on display in the Dec. 14 issue of the neo-conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, which wanted impeachment so badly its editors could taste it. "The presidency is the sun around which our day-to-day public life and discourse revolve," said an editorial arguing that Clinton has dishonored the apparently sacred institution.

 Plenty of person-on-the-street interviews feature somewhat less overheated comments to the effect that President Clinton may have lied about sex and done other reprehensible things, but l'Affaire Lewinsky doesn't seem to have affected his ability to "run the country," so why are folks excited. The economy's good, so the president must be "managing" it pretty well.

 The idea that the president actually "runs the country" and would somehow be distracted from that job, leading all of us to suffer should he removed from office, seems to have taken firm root in popular folklore. It's a thoroughly untrue and thoroughly unhealthy sentiment in a free society, more suited to an absolutist monarchy than to a free republic or even a democracy.

 Rulers certainly influence how the inhabitants of a country go about their daily routines and can become the determining factor in most people's lives when there's a war or other all-consuming political crisis. But a country is run by those who go to work, do their jobs, create goods, services and profits, create homes for their families and support networks for their loved ones, independently of what a president does -- independently, even, of whether there is a president at all.

 The U.S. Constitution didn't anticipate that the president would "run" the country or manage the economy. It does say he shall be commander in chief of the military and shall have the power to grant pardons and reprieves. He is empowered to make treaties (with the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate) and appoint ambassadors and judges of the Supreme Court. His duties specifically include reporting to Congress on the state of the union, recommending legislation, convening both houses "on extraordinary occasions," receiving ambassadors and "tak[ing] care that the laws be faithfully executed."

 All of that makes the president, as those who wrote the constitution understood, a reasonably powerful executive official. But his duties are strictly governmental in nature, and the government over which he presides was -- at least as the Constitution was written -- rather strictly limited to certain enumerated powers, like laying and collecting taxes, regulating commerce with foreign nations and among the states, coining money, establishing a post office and patent office, raising and supporting armies and the like. The 9th and 10th Amendments tried to make things even clearer, stating that all rights not given to the national government were reserved to the states and the people.

 None of the founders imagined that the president (or Congress) would or should run the country or manage the economy. Not only did they know it would be physically impossible, they feared giving government that kind of power. They had spent lives and fortunes freeing themselves from what they viewed as the intolerable tyranny of a distant monarch. They had no interest in creating a new one.

 My, how things have changed.

The building of the presidency into a royalist or imperial institution has been going on for a long time -- at least for the better part of this century and arguably longer. The outcome, fitfully (and often opportunistically) decried by conservatives and liberals alike at various times, is a presidency more like a godhead, viewed as the First Father, the First Teacher, the center of our national life, the "sun," the manager and fixer of the economy, the essential leader without whom our life as a people would be empty and meaningless.

 One of the most over-the-top expressions of presidency worship came from retired New York Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore at a save-the-president rally in New York last week. "I think of the millions of people who will suffer and die because the Republicans want to get President Clinton for a personal sin," said the apparently daft ecclesiastic a couple of days before the renowned peacemaker launched missiles.

However, while a case can be made that it is important to have a strong presidency during times of war and maybe even, reluctantly, during times of extended "cold war," the country is better off with a weaker, less influential, less all-commanding presidency during times of peace. And any country that aspires to keep its freedom should hope to be at peace most of the time. It's time to think seriously about taking not just this president but the presidency as an institution down several pegs.

 Posted for Educational and Discussion Purposes Only

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