We can blame three Presidents for the pickle we’re in. Washington, Lincoln, and FDR.
Washington’s name, in fact, probably doesn’t really belong. That’s because I’m counting the men who expanded the Presidency and gave it its grandeur and imperial brass sheen. So maybe just Lincoln and FDR. But the shadow those two cast is very, very long.
There are also-rans who have had tremendous impact, of course. Reagan would be one, Teddy Roosevelt as well, Jefferson (although likely not for his presidency) and I suppose Woodrow Wilson should be let in the club, insofar as his League of Nations morphed into the United Nations and its upside-down sister, NATO.
But that’s it.
Alas, due to the power and thrust of those first two examples -- – Presidents who simply grabbed power and kept it at a time when we really needed a President to grab power and keep it – the Presidency became what it was never intended to be: an ermine robe with regal authority.
Let’s be clear. I’m not talking modern royalty. None of this Elizabeth II having to plead for an allowance for her offspring or being unable to comment when her nation goes to war nonsense; I’m talking good, old-fashioned, medieval royalty. Off with their heads stuff. Torch the armada.
Unfortunately, FDR and Lincoln and their management of our two greatest moments of peril came before the invention of the atom bomb and the ICBM. FDR was, in fact, just before. As a result, all Presidents since have been exalted as “the most powerful person on earth” and “leader of the free world.”
That’s a lot for a job that, far from attracting and creating legions of Lincolns and franchises of FDRs has, instead, coughed up personages more along the lines of Chester A. Arthur or Millard Fillmore.
The problem is where this idolatry of the President, and the continued aggregation of power, particularly on the military side of things, has taken things.
The results have been abysmal. Wanna-be Wolsinghams such as Dick Cheney have worked with religious zeal to accrue more power to the executive – usually in the name of national defense. As a result, it might be wise to look at what has happened in the name of said national defense since FDR.
How about Truman and the disastrous foray into Korea, an undeclared war (Truman was asked by a reporter if it was a police action and he responded pretty much along the lines of, “Yeah, yeah, that’s what it is; it’s a police action!”) that killed 35,000 Americans? Johnson (and to some degree Kennedy and Nixon) never asked Congress to declare war either, and their instincts slowly slaughtered 57,000 Americans in Vietnam, for no good cause whatsoever. And don’t forget George Bush, who lied and misrepresented … well, everything… to shove us into the two longest conflicts in the nation’s history, with 4,500 Americans killed, some 30,000 wounded, and God knows how many Iraqis and Afghans murdered. Hundreds -- literally hundreds -- of thousands.
Now, ask yourself, how many of these wars were sanctioned by Congress? No, forget that. When in fact, was the last time Congress was asked to declare war?
Here is the date:
June 5, 1942. When America declared war on Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary.
So there you have it: the President working on his own, taking advantage of the powers given him so he can respond in an emergency in the atomic age. If any student of history can tell me how the stumble into Korea, or the slow suicidal crawl into Vietnam, or our arrogant march into Afghanistan and especially Iraq were adventures that required immediate action precluding Congressional approval, I will show you someone who got their degree from Liberty University.
Obviously, none of these endeavors required swift and immediate action. That's the correct answer. However, if each of them had gone through the wash cycle of Congress, and Congress had done its job, I am convinced that more than thirty years of war (in the last sixty eight) would have been avoided and 100,000 Americans would have been spared their lives.
(I don’t know the real reason crazed neo-cons like Cheney lust to aggregate power to the Presidency. I assume it’s because they get jacked up by the thrill of power and pomp, and, perhaps, the ability to kill people. It might even be a sexual thrill.)
Now, however, thanks to forty million brain-dead Americans, we are in an even worse spot than ever. We are saddled with someone far worse than the geniuses who gave us Korea, Vietnam, and our Middle Eastern exploits. We have a complete amoral asshole in the White House, a dumb cousin who nonetheless does know one important rule about Presidential popularity: Presidents are popular during wartime.
Which brings us to Congress.
Let’s be clear about our current problem. It’s not that people on the street don’t know what the duties of Senators and Congressmen are – and if we’re honest we’ll admit that most of them don’t. The problem is that Senators and Congressmen don’t know, either.
The Republicans in Congress believe their role is to rubber stamp their President in every single instance they can (their own electoral issues being the only exception), and most of all to buttress the party’s fortunes with the base. The Democrats, on the other hand, believe their job is to wage war on the Republicans with every tool they possess, rendering the United States constitution into a sort of Potomac “Game of Thrones.”
Congress and its leaders don’t know that they are supposed to govern. If we had a system that worked as it was intended, a wholly unfit moron like Trump would thereby be part of the orchestra, as opposed to some rabid one-man band. Moreover, someone of his limited abilities and gross personal habits could probably be endured until the next election, after which he presumably would be sent off into history where he belongs, seated beside a grumpy Franklin Pierce and a head-scratching Warren Harding.
But Congress stopped doing its job long ago. Many of its members weren’t even alive back when Congress did do its job. We have to get them to restore their duties and obligations.
In order to make that happen, the country first needs to get rid of the idea of the regal Presidency, with its flags and plane and all that “most powerful man on earth” bullshit. While we’re at it, get rid of all the saluting. Reagan invented that; it was ridiculous then and it’s ridiculous now.
It may be hard for us to do at first, and may require a little extra thinking, but it can be done.
Once done, I am sure, we will all sleep at night a little better knowing that if James Buchanan is in the White House – or George Bush II, or Donald Trump – at least he doesn’t have wholesale ability to pick up a shotgun and lead us all into Vietnam. Or blast us into Armageddon, simply because his poll numbers or ratings are low. Until then, that is exactly what we’re facing. If anyone believes that is a rational way to run a Republic and free society, raise your hand.