Do we still need the Imperial Presidency?
With the Cold War over, the pundits keep telling us the world is safe. They say the world’s only remaining superpower can relax and spend less on national defense. I don’t buy it.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the loss of the USSR’s central control over thousands of nuclear weapons make the world, in my judgment, more dangerous than ever before. The economic woes of the People’s Republic of China bode ill for the world because, when times are bad in China, its communist government becomes even more repressive internally and more aggressive with regard to Taiwan. Even more disturbing is the increasing possibility that terrorist groups will obtain weapons of mass destruction.
Be that as it may, the Cold War legacy of the Doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD is that hitherto unheard of power and authority were placed in the hands of American Presidents. To this day, an armed Warrant Officer holding a briefcase containing the nuclear weapons release codes is supposed to be within a few feet of the President, day and night.
Holding the fate of the planet in a single pair of hands gave rise to: the Imperial Presidency. Indeed, no Roman ruler, no Pharaoh, no European monarch ever enjoyed as much power and the trappings of power as post-World War II American Presidents. But with that power came responsibility. When President Richard Nixon showed signs of acting irresponsibility, he was forced to resign.
By contrast, the American people are not particularly concerned about Bill Clinton’s shocking inability to act as responsible adult. In fact, his wife recently said in a magazine interview that her husband is not responsible for his numerous infidelities. Instead, his late mother and grandmother should be blamed.
Evidently, with the Evil Empire in bankruptcy, Americans no longer believe the presidency is as important as it was during the time of Richard Nixon. President Nixon got the boot and Bill Clinton got a slap on the wrist.
In fact, the situation has relaxed to the point that Bill Clinton’s limousine entourage has departed several events leaving the Warrant Officer and his nuclear codes behind. Given that reality, do we really need the Imperial Presidency? If the tawdry Presidency of Warren Harding is Clinton’s role model, then it should follow that the Clinton White House would be correspondingly cheap as well.
But cutting the White House budget is very difficult because the White House Shanghai’s other parts of the executive branch for extra staff. Rather than spend its own budget, the White routinely forces the Department of Defense and other cabinet-level departments outside the executive branch to “loan” personnel and resources. Bottom line: no one really knows the bottom line of the White House.
By having unlimited transportation and communications resources, a Bill Clinton can use a Boeing 747 to attend the aftermath of each school shooting, flood, drought, celebrity airplane crash and funeral. The ability to “be there” at almost a moment’s notice makes the President appear to be relevant to the situation even when there is little or nothing the executive branch can do to right the wrong or assuage the suffering.
Historically, the similarity with Adolph Hitler is striking. Hitler was a talker, a dreamer, a procrastinator and prevaricator who preferred to be flown around Germany in a Junkers Tri-motor (the Boeing 747 of its day) attending party rallies and making speeches rather than stay in his office and cope with details. The details he left to other nuts such as: Goebbels, Himmler and Eichmann.
Unfortunately, because of all the imperial trappings, the American media confuse presidential activity with action. This puts the party out-of-power at a terrible disadvantage because all the focus on presidential activity means there is little opportunity for the public to see or hear alternative public-policy ideas.
So, let’s strip the White House of the trappings of the Imperial Presidency until, of course, my candidate gets elected.
William Hamilton is a nationally syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today.