Special Report

Narcissists With Nukes

Gene Healy is determined to deprogram what he calls "the cult of the presidency."

By 6.6.08

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The race for the White House has been steadily devolving into something approaching a mediocre reality television show with far too much consequence for months now -- Oh my Gawd, Hillary was voted off American Messiah this week! -- and in the midst of our national mania it is difficult to fathom a time when the presidency of the United States not only fit into the constitutional box designed for it, but even occasionally inspired some degree of humility in those who occupied it. Should Cato Institute Senior Editor Gene Healy's wonderfully informative, perception shifting examination of the wayward American executive, The Cult of the Presidency, receive the attention it so richly deserves, however, it may serve as a perfect literary tonic for our historical and cultural amnesia. Perhaps Healy, armed with a persuasive, good-natured outrage, will even inspire some among us toward a more narrow definition of presidential virtuousness and, by extension, broaden the conception of our own.

Healy was kind enough to speak with TAS recently about The Cult of the Presidency, which syndicated columnist George Will has labeled "the year's most pertinent and sobering public affairs book."

TAS:I learned so much reading The Cult of the Presidency, which seeds a very good history of the office with a slew of beautiful, strange and at times frightening anecdotes -- a humble President Cleveland answering the White House phone personally, LBJ having a hydraulic throne installed in Air Force One "he could raise or lower to achieve the appropriate level of intimacy or intimidation," the various uses and misuses of the CIA and FBI. Were there any stories or factoids that particularly shocked you during your research?

Gene Healy:The anecdotes I prefer are the polar opposite of the Wise, Compassionate Leader parables you often hear on Sunday morning talk shows. I prefer stories like the one (from Robert Dallek's biography of LBJ, Flawed Giant), where in a private oval office meeting in 1967, asked by a reporter why America was in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson unzipped his fly, wagged the presidential member at his audience, and exclaimed "This is why!" I find that little story hilarious, horrifying, and, er, revealing: The president as Great Ape atop the world's most important primate hierarchy. It tells you something about how the office magnifies the personality flaws of the bizarre people who are willing to do what it takes to get there, with the result that you too often end up governed by a Narcissist with Nukes.

TAS:Talk a little bit about how you came to write the book.

GH: I came of political age in the '90s, with the conservative critique of Waco, and during a time when conservatives often opposed foreign adventurism. Though I identified myself as a libertarian, I always associated conservatism with a realistic view of human nature and, accordingly, skepticism toward unchecked power. And the conservatives I knew best had spent the '90s trying to convince the country that the executive branch had been seized by an utterly corrupt bunch of people who could not be trusted with power. Yet here they were in the new century, endorsing every one of the Bush administration's extravagant constitutional claims. This seemed especially odd when all the while the odds-on favorite to win the office was another candidate named Clinton. So I started thinking about a book about the post-9/11 presidency that might offer some conservative reasons for re-limiting the presidency.

And then the more I read and thought about the presidency, the more I started to think about the way Americans talk about presidents and how surreal it was. He's the man who can "get the country moving again," the man who needs to "do something" about whatever crisis currently dominates the headlines, whether it's tornadoes or childhood obesity. This wasn't the original idea. The framers of our Constitution saw the president as a limited constitutional officer whose main job was to faithfully execute the laws. But Americans today tend to view the president as a combination Guardian Angel and national nanny, the guy or gal whose job it is to answer the phone at 3 a.m. to protect your children, to save you from hurricanes, grow the economy, and democratize the world. That view of the presidency couldn't be more different than how the framers viewed the office. And it's dangerous: When the president is expected to solve every major problem in American life, we shouldn't be surprised if he seeks the power to meet that responsibility.

TAS: The Cult of the Presidency does a good job of laying out what you describe as the "bipartisan romance with the Imperial Presidency." The problem with reining in executive power seems to be the same as that of securing civil liberties -- can we ever make real progress on either front when only the half of the country whose candidate/party lost last time seems interested in limiting or rolling back power at a given time?

GH:In the book I talk about a phenomenon that others have described as "situational constitutionalism": that is, the all-too-common practice of changing one's interpretation of what the Constitution requires depending on whether or not your buddies are in power. If you're a Red-Team partisan, then warrantless wiretaps, presidential wars, and rule by executive order can look pretty frightening when the Blue Team has the ball -- and vice-versa. I suspect we're going to see a lot of born-again civil libertarians on the Right if we have a Democratic president in January. And we're likely to see some current critics of the Imperial Presidency quiet down somewhat when a Dem gets to be emperor.

The late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote The Imperial Presidency, was a prime example of this syndrome. In his long career, Schlesinger loudly defended Truman's undeclared war in Korea, worshipped at the altar of Camelot, and then, when the GOP took back the presidency, decided that perhaps the Imperial Presidency wasn't such a swell idea after all. He stuck to that line during the '80s, but when the Blue Team took back the White House in the '90s, Schlesinger had very little to say about Clinton's foreign policy adventurism and contempt for Congress. In fact, during the impeachment effort, Schlesinger wrote a New York Times op-ed called "So Much for the Imperial Presidency" -- and sounded kind of sad that it was gone. Of course it wasn't gone. Not long after Schlesinger wrote that piece, Clinton carried out an undeclared war over Kosovo, in outright defiance of a congressional vote refusing to authorize it. To my knowledge, the author of The Imperial Presidency never complained.

TAS:You've argued that the conservative movement, "once an ideological bulwark against the concentration of power...has become a presidential enabler." Do you view this trend as reversible?

GH: Well, I'd like to see it reversed because there's nothing conservative about unchecked presidential power. The postwar conservative movement was initially made up of folks who were quite skeptical toward the idea of the activist presidency. Russell Kirk praised Robert Taft for his resistance to presidential wars; James Burnham wrote a book called Congress and the American Tradition, warning that the erosion of congressional power risked bringing about "plebiscitary despotism for the United States in place of constitutional government, and thus the end of political liberty." Conservatives of old associated presidential activism with New Deals, New Frontiers, Great Societies, and other ambitious and un-conservative schemes to create heaven on earth. But that history fell down a memory hole during the '70s and '80s with the "emerging Republican majority." By the mid-'80s, the Right had come full circle. Where once conservatives in Congress backed the 22nd Amendment limiting presidential terms, by the Reagan era they could be heard to call for the amendment's repeal.

If we're now in an era of a vanishing Republican majority, then it's quite possible that a series of electoral defeats will concentrate the mind wonderfully and lead conservatives back to an older wisdom. But I'd prefer to convince as many conservatives and liberals as I can on the merits. The case for limits on presidential power shouldn't depend on the vagaries of the electoral cycle. The Constitution shouldn't be a Red Team/Blue Team issue.

TAS:Are the excesses of the current Bush Administration more or less remarkable than its foes would have it?

GH:Less, in some ways. Sometimes on left-wing talk radio, hosts and callers want you to say that George W. Bush has been the most anti-civil-libertarian president in American history. But clearly, nothing Bush has done domestically compares to Woodrow Wilson's massive crackdown on civil liberties or FDR's internment of Japanese Americans. While the Bush team has been completely unrestrained in court, arguing for the broadest possible interpretation of executive power, in practice the administration has never pushed those powers as far as its underlying theory would allow. That said, there are reasons to be especially concerned about the administration's approach to constitutional limits. As the president never tires of reminding us, this is "a different kind of war." It's not a war that will end in a few years with a peace treaty in Paris and a tickertape parade. It can go on for as long as terrorists are willing to kill themselves to kill Americans, which means that the new powers we accept will be available for all future presidents to use and abuse.

TAS:Can any modern presidency be considered successful without a significant expansion of power?

GH:The presidential scholars and historians who participate in the presidential rankings surveys tend to reward presidents who dream big, seize power, and blow things up. They're less forgiving when it comes to presidents who stick to their constitutional role. But in answer to your question -- yes, if we repudiate the demented standards by which presidential "greatness" seems to be judged. There's something to be said for presidents who merely preside over peace and prosperity without screwing it all up. You might even say they're the truly "great" presidents.

TAS:Since we aren't allowed to ignore it, what is the best tack for voters who would like to see executive power ratcheted down to take?

GH:I wish I knew. History suggests that looking at the candidates' positions on the issues is next to useless. As a thought experiment, imagine you had a time machine, and imagine you couldn't think of anything better to do with it than travel back a few years and pester likely voters. Let's say you got in your magic Delorean and went back to October 1992 and told a bunch of Democrats, "Hey, I'm from the future, and you know what? The next president will expand free trade, get rid of the deficit, and end welfare as we know it." They'd be convinced that Bill Clinton lost the 1992 election. And let's say you took your time machine back to the middle of 2000's Battle of the Chad and told a bunch of Republicans, "Listen up, the next president will increase spending, carry out a bloody nation-building campaign in a country that didn't threaten us, and expand the welfare state faster than anyone since LBJ." Those Republicans would be convinced that Al Gore won the 2000 election.

So who knows? I prefer Obama's positions on civil liberties and executive power issues to McCain's, but I also think that as someone publicly perceived to be "soft on terror," Obama will be under enormous pressure to adopt something like a "Bush Lite" constitutional theory if there's another terrorist attack. Moreover, the idea that the Democrats, who invented the Imperial Presidency for crying out loud, are going to get rid of it with a guy who's running as the reincarnation of JFK strikes me as more than a little naive. To get a more restrained presidency in the post-9/11 era, you might actually need a Nixon goes to China dynamic, where a president whose "toughness" is unquestioned is free to ratchet down the atmosphere of permanent crisis. Ike did this somewhat in the early Cold War. McCain's reputation would allow him to do it as well, if he chose. I don't think there's much hope that he would, however. Judging by McCain's record and the people he's surrounded himself with, he's the dream candidate for National Greatness Conservatives who've done so much damage to America over the last seven years.

TAS:The Cult of the Presidency nevertheless ends on a hopeful note. Why do you believe it may be "a dying cult"?

GH:Conservatives -- and some libertarians -- are temperamentally inclined toward narratives of despair: "It's getting worse all the time." I'm pretty much wired that way myself. But it's worth considering the case for optimism, because that case is not nearly as bad as the pessimists might like. The fact is, Americans' orientation toward the presidency is far less cultish than it used to be. In the book, I use a quote from Nixon's chief of staff H.R. Haldeman. In the Watergate tapes, Nixon and Haldeman are discussing what to do about the leak of the Pentagon Papers, and Haldeman says that what's really bad about the release of this information is that "the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the President wants to do even though it's wrong, and the President can be wrong."

"The implicit infallibility of presidents"! No one today would use that phrase with a straight face, let alone suggest it was "an accepted thing in America." Whenever trust in government goes down, you get these earnest conferences at the Brookings Institution lamenting the "trust crisis." But surely it's a good thing that we no longer have 75 percent of Americans trusting the federal government to do what is right all or most of the time. And it's a good thing that our culture has grown far more irreverent and impious toward individual presidents, if not the presidency itself. What's unfortunate is that even though the amount of trust we invest in government has gone down to a more realistic level, the demands we place on the federal government -- and especially the presidency -- are as unhinged as ever. We still expect the president to "create jobs," teach our children well, cure our spiritual "malaise," and provide seamless protection from any conceivable foreign threat. Those demands virtually guarantee a frightening concentration of power in the executive branch.

TAS:You argue toward the end of The Cult of the Presidency that "Skepticism toward power is our constitutional birthright, and it teaches us that in politics, wherever there's a promise, there's an unspoken threat."

GH:A healthier political culture would follow the Framers not just in their skepticism toward power, but in their sense that the federal government was one of limited responsibilities and limited powers. Until we restore that sense of limits, I'm afraid that we're going to get more of the same, no matter who becomes president.

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