A Better Tyrant?
How did the U.S. economy perform under George Washington? And how did he bring regional stability to troubled areas of the world?
Give up? Lets start by observing that people didnt talk or think in such terms in those days.
The president wasnt a leader (a dictator or demagogue) or a popularly elected super-representative. He was an executive, inferior to Congress, with only a few limited and specific powers. He wasnt responsible for running an empire or supervising the commerce of the United States.
Neither was the Congress, for that matter. Only the House of Representatives was popularly elected; the Senate was chosen by the state legislatures until, less than a century ago, it was virtually abolished by the Seventeenth Amendment, so that its existence no longer makes much sense. What is the point of having two legislative houses that are both popularly elected?
If the Framers came back today, they would probably be most astounded (and horrified) by the size of the Executive Branch, which remained so modest for the first few generations that even in Lincolns time you could walk into the White House and ask Lincoln himself for a job. With little security and no metal detectors, assassinating a president was so easy that we may marvel that it had never happened before 1865, except that the office was so weak it was hardly worth the trouble. That changed with the Civil War, when Lincoln began the usurpations of power we now take for granted.
Vulgar people generally prefer monarchical or dictatorial forms of government, a single dynamic or heroic leader a Hitler, a Castro, a Roosevelt. Wartime is especially favorable to strongmen, and President Bush has used the war on terror to aggrandize the already- enormous Executive Branch and its bureaucracies.
Congress now accepts all but the most extravagant claims of presidential power, and Bush neither knows nor cares about the original constitutional distribution of power. It is safe to assume he is quite unacquainted with The Federalist Papers, the issues they discuss, and the debates that gave rise to them.
The same is true of most Americans; we are still in the era of dictatorship. This is evident in our obsession with the presidency, our premature interest in the 2008 presidential election, and of course the frequent calls for the abolition of the Electoral College, which has become as much a relic of an earlier age as the Senate. The whole drift of our politics is toward direct popular election of a single leader. The Constitutions careful decentralization of power is widely regarded as reactionary and inefficient.
Our obsession with the presidency as the focus of political interest, and of our irrational expectations of government, leads naturally to bitter politics and personal hatred of a decider who tries and inevitably fails to please everyone. Bush is even held responsible for such natural disasters as hurricanes, though the Constitution says nothing about weather. It isnt surprising that he winds up being the butt of sour humor.
So much fuss over one man! Who says we dont have royalty any more? What king was ever as powerful as a modern U.S. president?
The Framers assumed that the office would always be filled by white men, though there is no reason its duties cant be performed by a black or a woman. True, it may seem odd to hear Hail to the Chief played for President Hillary Clinton, but maybe thats one of the things we will just have to adjust to.
We may laugh when Bush mispronounces nuclear, but we arent shocked by his profound ignorance of our constitutional tradition, which should be the real scandal. He seems to think he is commander in chief of the entire United States, rather than of the armed forces in time of war; worse, he seems to think he has the constitutional authority to suspend the Constitution itself.
What does he think was the point of creating a republic, if not to get rid of monarchy? The whole idea was to prevent one man (or a few men) from acquiring too much power.
Well, if Bushs legacy turns out to be the discrediting of government, maybe it will all have been worth it. But I wouldnt bet on that happening. As 2008 approaches, most Americans seem to think the only thing wrong with the presidency is that its vast powers are being wielded by a fool. All we need is a better tyrant next time.
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