November 2007

The Untimely Demise of the President of The United States of America

by R.J. Hansen

"The time has come to talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing wax,
Of cabbages and kings."

             ~Lewis Carroll

It occurs to me that the days of the President of The United States are numbered. I do not refer, however, to the literal demise of the current sitting President. Instead, I refer to the obsolescence of the office itself. Like the vast powers of the English King before him, fourteen years of an overreaching and clumsy lack of discretion on the part of the past two Presidents may ultimately sum up to a grim consequence: The American people, and certainly their Congress, are beginning to doubt whether the political concept of allowing such authority to reside in a "sole decider," for any length of time, is wise.

When a trusted office is not "faithfully executed," legislative or other proscription of that office is a foregone conclusion. We need only look to history, and the creation of the first Parliament in England, to see where the concepts of the "rule of law," and a Constitutional government, first entered into our political lexicon. King John, too, was poorly prosecuting a foolhardy war when he was forced to accept Parliament and Magna Carta. It is simplistic to believe that such a contract came to pass simply because King John's taxes were too high. Though it may have been the ostensible reason behind it, it was because he had failed in his responsibility to his lords and other nobility to preserve the peace, and to even listen to them and accept their petitions and grievances. His failure to accept that he had a responsibility to the men who had agreed he was King was his failure, and they forced him to sign a treaty to drive the point home when they won the day.

The President of the United States of America, however, is responsible to a greater number of people than a mere cadre of landed Lords. This was the case of King George III to His thirteen colonies when they revolted, once again ostensibly over taxes, but in reality over his utter failure to keep the peace and listen to them, or even deliver to them their rights as Englishmen or just prosecution of the common law. What end does it serve us, thought they, to be Englishmen if we enjoy none of the privileges as such? Amongst Jefferson's complaints in the Declaration is "He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good." Our primary complaint was that the King was a tyrant who thought himself above Laws, thought he could violate our rights as Englishmen, and that that tyrant was not accepting our strenuous appeals, as was his duty. The taxes were just a way to bring as many people as possible under the banner of revolution.

And now, we have had two consecutive Chief Executives who seemingly think that the purpose of the office is to be the sole "decider" of matters that are better left to the people, its Congress, and its various constituencies. They share a crisis of ethics in the "faithful execution" of that office, and also a twin travesty that may well doom the office of the President of the United States of America to the same decorative ignominy as the Royal Monarch of the United Kingdom. Like the "Glorious Revolution" against James II in England, our legislatures, under both Chief Executives, have slowly begun to circumscribe and harass the office and its execution, so that its occupant may not cause the country harm.

William Jefferson Clinton

Put aside that you may like this man. I like Bill Clinton. The question I put to you is "Was he an ethical leader who used the powers of his office with care and discretion?" I put to you, gentle reader that the answer is clearly, "No."

His first executive order was to declare that the highly contentious issue of military service for homosexuals was decided. I happen to be of the opinion that gays can kill people as well as any other person, but the ethical question is should Bill Clinton have tried to solve such an issue by fiat? What kind of government did he think he was in charge of to do so? The results of this arrogance were predictable, and the ridiculous "policy" that followed in its wake demonstrated that executive unilateralism solves little in the long run.

Then, Clinton gave the entire monumental task of creating a National Health Care System, which you may or may not think is necessary, to his wife, by appointment. Is this ethical? Is it any better than Bush's appointments which prefer personal friendship over relevant skills and qualifications? No. He should have handed that complex issue to a blue ribbon panel of insurance industry and medical experts if he wanted it to have any legitimacy at all. Rather than do that, and risk losing control, he handed it to his wife who had no qualifications to recommend her to the job other than her supreme ambition and diligent nature. The insurance industry, feeling utterly ignored, launched a massive public relations campaign pointing out, quite correctly, that this was a gross and incompetent executive power grab, which attempted to set up a monstrosity written by a group of rank amateurs. Following this, Clinton and his wife actually had the temerity to go on television together, trying for all the world to look like America's Mom and Dad, and tell us that we should "trust them" and that everyone else was scare mongering. Few bought into this perverse exercise in nepotism, however, and the plan failed.

Is it any wonder that when the Republican's took control of Congress through a deft campaign led by Newt Gingrich, they immediately saw this executive power grab as a threat to their immediate constituencies, and took as many steps to limit him as possible, including setting up a permanent attack dog, under the auspices of a Nixon-era "Special Prosecutor," which would hound Clinton for the rest of his days of service, and lead to an unsuccessful impeachment proceeding?

Sure. We could easily claim that the Congress overstepped its bounds, and I will do so later on, but to a Republican Congress, Bill Clinton was a willful and petulant "tyrant," who had no respect for the office, and I can't say that I blame them for taking every step they deemed legal to limit him.

Add to this the hundreds of executive orders that he signed just before Bush took office, many of which seemed to serve the mean-spirited purpose of hampering and harranguing the new President, and I think we can at least assert that Clinton believed in himself more than he did the office. No one who trusted the the very government that granted him his powers of office could have exercised them in such a wanton display of rancor.

He was unethical.

George W. Bush

Put aside that you may like this man. I like George Bush. The question I put to you is "Is he an ethical leader who uses the powers of his office with care and discretion?" I put to you, gentle reader that the answer is clearly, "No."

As much as I may like him, that only recommends him to the cover of Gentleman's Quarterly. In office, this man has managed our affairs much as King George, III did at this nation's birth. He has arrogantly denied the rights and petitions of fully half of the electorate, including the majority of the population in the four years following the 2000 election, as if he need not heed the advice or protests of the "losers." His diverse abuses of executive power are numerous, and striking when compared to Clinton's childish narcissism.

I won't try to carefully argue that he has unethically executed his trusted office, because he has done so so thoroughly that an exhaustive study would dwarf the list of complaints against King George, III in the Declaration of Independence.

I will simply remark upon the depth of his malfeasance in a brief annotated list:

Repeatedly justifying and reserving his ability to order torture [1] , violating the 4th amendment with an illegal domestic spying program [2], creating new prisoner law unilaterally and without Congressional assent [3], deliberately seeding our news media with false reports [4], deliberately seeding his own press conferences with false reporters [5], and willfully stating that he will selectively enforce laws he has just signed in accompanying statements [6].

If you think any of the above is justified or respectful of the office, the government, or the "rule of Law," then you are of the shrinking minority who still ardently supports this man. I put to you that if you wish to preserve your Grand Old Republican party, now is a good time to abandon your support of him in favor of respectful conservatism. Later could be a catastrophe, both for the Republican party, and the Office itself.

Pay close attention to Arlen Specter, and other "true conservatives," and understand that the opposite of a conservative is a radical, not a liberal. The nation is tired of Bush's radical and unethical practices, and if you cannot sort him out for yourselves, I can guarantee you that Speaker Pelosi is as eager to stymie Bush as Speaker Gingrich was when he halted Clinton in his tracks, and has more than enough power and will to do so.

But that begs a question: Was Newt Gingrich, or would Nancy Pelosi, be correct or justified in doing so in the first place?

Cabbages and Kings

Did you notice where we wound up after discussing these two Presidents?

The Speaker of the House.

The third in line to the President has, in both administrations, justly or unjustly as the case may be, found a way to directly threaten and hamstring the President. There may be a system of "checks and balances" in place, but the President himself comes up very short against a unified legislature deciding to isolate and limit a President's authority, with or without cause, nor has he any defense against harassment by that legislature excepting the poorly defined policy of "executive privilege." This may have been by design, or it may have been an unfortunate accident that the Founders failed to foresee, but it is an inescapable fact. Opposition parties in control of the legislature are no longer content to coexist with a President, and simply check his power, they are instead on the attack as soon as they get control of the legislature. They are actively whittling away at the executive, both in the former Gingrich Congress and the current Pelosi Congress. Considering that the Speaker is third in line, it is hardly surprising that that office is usually the source of these aggressive actions.

For our system of government, this is an extraordinarily bad result. Our Congress should check and balance the President, not destroy him. To do otherwise is as disrespectful of the office, the "rule of law," and the Constitution that outlines those powers, as these two arrogant Presidents. Newt Gingrich has opened up a recipe for national disaster, and Nancy Pelosi seems far too willing to follow in his footsteps, despite her lip service to the contrary.

Historically, we can trace gross unilateral incompetence back to the spy plane incident under Eisenhower, or the "Bay of Pigs" and Vietnam conflicts under Kennedy, though Johnson is more commonly associated with that failed action. But Congress was largely willing to coexist with Eisenhower, and failed to find the political will to stop Johnson from carrying the Vietnam conflict to a ridiculous crescendo. The criminal Nixon administration caused the Congress to introduce these powers, but a Democratic majority largely did not seek to joust with either Reagan or George H.W. Bush in any great fashion. They simply locked down the legislature in an action Bush correctly termed, "The gridlock Congress."

The aggressive, belligerent Congresses we see today really started with Bill Clinton. Astonishingly, it started with the "leadership" of Dick Gephardt and his own Democratic party, who it seemed could not give their own President the time of day, and then with the Congress of the opportunistic Newt Gingrich who determined that it was the legislature's job to attack a sitting President, rather than respect the office, if not the man. If these trends continue, and there's no reason to see why they wouldn't, in the next century, possibly less, through attrition, the office of the President of the United States will have each of his powers either stripped or rendered unusable. The Majority Leaders will secure much of that power under themselves, and the only function of the Chief Executive will be as the figurehead Commander-In-Chief of an Armed Forces that he needs the approval of Congress to employ.

Through their consecutive abusive and unethical terms of office, through their failure to listen and to pretend empathy, through their disrespect for the office itself and the greater structure of Law as nothing more than an obstruction to perjure or dissemble past, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush's Presidencies may well be the last of their kind in the history of this great nation.

I sure hope so. The only question is will Congress destroy the office in the process of dealing with poor and unethical Presidential behavior?

Whether or not that happens depends entirely on the actions and communications of every citizen to their representatives. We must tell them that two unethically run Presidencies should not nullify or preclude the respect and power due the office itself. We must tell them to defend the Constitution, not rewrite it in their image. The powers that were reserved to combat the Nixon administration, and any other powers that our Congress has reserved to combat anyone, should be sunsetted. These are not powers that were intended by the Constitution, it is not the job of the Congress to hamper a sitting President, and it is quite enough to just let him sit out the remainder of his days in office as a lame duck. It's time we came off the concept of "Special Prosecutors," which allow a Congress to harass a President without invoking the articles of impeachment. If the Congress feels they need to exercise their powers of impeachment, they should do so, or they should leave the current President, and any future President in peace.

To do otherwise is to admit that the office is obsolete, and that should be put to a Constitutional Convention, not whittled away by House Speakers that think that it is they who should wield the executive authority. This has gotten beyond out of hand. We are no longer respecting our own laws. This government is set up so that one man cannot destroy it, and though we may not respect the man, we should not harangue the office itself to a final vanishing point.

I am of the opinion that we need a single Chief Executive, because the Congress and the Judiciary have frequently demonstrated their inability to move quickly in emergency, or even make up their collective "mind," and so we need the President of the United States to take decisive action to defend our Constitution. I simply hope we find more talented men in the future, but we are not going to attract such men while Congress stands over the office itself with a self-righteous hatchet.