It’s time we revised our eighth-grade social studies textbooks. America has no presidency any longer, but a monarchy.
Absurd? Historian Garry Wills says it isn’t that far from the truth.
Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State
(Penguin; US: Jan 2010)
So he argues in his new book, “Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State.”
An exquisitely researched, passionately written political history, “Bomb Power” argues that for the last six decades, an increasingly militarized presidency has usurped power once limited to Congress and the courts.
Wills believes this trend undermines democracy at its core.
“Congress has become irrelevant,” he says on the phone from Evanston, Ill., where he is an emeritus professor of history at Northwestern University. “And the Supreme Court ... just an extension of presidential power.”
With almost 40 books to his credit, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America,” the 75-year-old Wills is one of the most respected, prolific and erudite public intellectuals in America. In “Bomb Power,” he argues that since the end of World War II, presidents of both parties have held on to powers reserved for wartime. Presidents since Harry S. Truman have cultivated and jealously guarded their increasing domain of power.
The trend, Wills holds, reached its apotheosis with George W. Bush, whom he dubs the “American monarch.” Wills asserts that Bush and Dick Cheney even invested in themselves the power to interpret the Constitution at will — outside the courts. And that they also appropriated the right to make laws.
As Wills tells it, Bush followed a trend begun by Ronald Reagan of using “signing statements” — once ceremonial notes presidents appended to new legislation they signed — to undermine Congress’ sole authority to make laws.
Bush reportedly used 1,200 signing statements to cancel or amend sections of new laws. That is nearly twice the challenges by all previous 42 presidents combined.
But Bush’s presidency didn’t emerge sui generis.
“(This is) the cumulative force of 60 years of crisis government,” Wills says.
Presidents have justified their growing power by convincing the public that the nation is in peril, Wills explains. And emergencies require that our leaders take extra measures to protect us.
“After every war — the Revolution, World War I, and the Civil War — the powers the executive took were relinquished,” Wills says.
“In our case, the emergency never went away. World War II melded into the Cold War and the war on terror,” Wills says, adding that we have become a national security state whose raison d’etre is to cultivate an aura of perpetual “war in peace.”
He writes that the seeds of this counterrevolution began with the development of the atom bomb, a massive, military-controlled operation supported by secret funds — and outside congressional oversight.
Wills says Congress’ power over the nation’s purse strings ensures that the president can be held accountable for every one of his acts.
He concedes that “it’s understandable if the president circumvents Congress in a time of war.” But, he says, it’s quite another thing when the White House creates and independently funds a slew of secret agencies during peacetime.
This practice is accepted by a public enthralled by what Wills calls the cult of the commander-in-chief.
“Until Reagan, troops didn’t salute the president. Ike (Dwight D. Eisenhower) was a real general, and he wasn’t saluted when he was president!” he says.
Rebaptized as a military leader, the president’s symbolic impact radically changes. “You don’t question a general in field,” Wills says.
Criticize the president, and you’re hurting troop morale, or being unpatriotic, or worse, aiding the enemy. Wills details how this mind-set prevailed during the Korean War and the first years of the Iraq war.
This fear of appearing unpatriotic is matched by fear that our country is in jeopardy.
Wills cites the advice Sen. Arthur Vandenberg gave Truman in 1947 about how to sell his anti-Communist policy: “Mr. President, the only way you are ever going to get this is to make a speech and scare the hell out of the country.”
Wills says, “They’ve been doing that ever since.”
Most perniciously, he asserts, presidents mobilize the country by claiming they have secret knowledge about the enemy.
“Of course, they can’t prove it by sharing the intelligence, since it’s secret,” Wills says, laughing.
He cites Lyndon Johnson’s claims of secret knowledge about North Vietnam. “The leaking of the Pentagon Papers proved there was no secret knowledge,” Wills says. “It was just empty rhetoric.”
Wills holds that the situation is especially troubling because “the threat from the Soviet Union ... and now from terrorism is real.” The difficulty is how to adjudicate a proper response within constitutional limits.
“Bomb Power” paints a bleak — perhaps hopeless — picture of America’s future. The trend it identifies seems unstoppable. Wills likens the bloated state of the presidency to Frankenstein’s monster, a dangerous creation that no longer answers to its creator.
It’s a juggernaut composed of the entire intelligence and defense machinery and the corporations that furnish it with weapons, manpower and services.
“In a way Barack Obama is a hostage” to the beast, Wills says: “There’s too much invested in the machinery” for any president to dismantle it.
“Obama seems to have backed away from a lot of his promises about reforming our policy in Iraq,” Wills says. He says he’s especially concerned by Obama’s refusal to investigate possible abuses in Bush’s war policy.
“Obama says it does no good to look back, that we must look forward,” Wills says. “But that is the whole way the perpetuation of abuse has occurred.”