Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

July 21, 2008

Host: Ted Simons

Gene Healy

  • A conversation with the author of �The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power."
  • Gene Healy - Author

View Transcript
>>Ted Simons:
Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute. He's written several studies on executive power abuses, and now he's written a book, The Cult of the Presidency -- America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power. Larry Lemmons talked to Healy at the Goldwater institute.

>>Larry Lemmons:
So. The Cult of Presidency--America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power. So your premise is that the president has too much power?

>>Gene Healy:
I think what the Cult of the Presidency is all about, it's really just shorthand for the way that Americans have come to look at the office. We sort of come to look at the presidency, or the president as a combination guardian angel and national nanny, plus the supreme war lord of the earth. And this is not the original design. This is not what the framers of our Constitution intended for the office. They really had a much more modest, more businesslike conception of the office. They saw the president as mainly a chief magistrate who would faithfully execute the laws. They never thought of the president as the person who would fix all of your problems. And I think as we've gotten towards the idea that the president is there to, you know, get you a job when you're out of work, and to answer the phone at 3:00 a.m., to keep your kids safe, we've really created a situation where the presidency has much more power than it was ever intended to have.

>>Larry Lemmons:
Historically, could you point at some times when you might have seen this trend developing?

>>Gene Healy:
There's a lot of debate about that, because of course there are presidents in the 19th century who exercised a strong power. So you had Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, but I think when you really start to see it is with the three progressive giants of the early 20th century. Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and finally FDR. I think after the -- after those three presidency and after the three crises of World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, the presidency was completely transformed and became and went from what was supposed to be a fairly constitutional office of limited powers, to the focal point of all American government. And as I said, that's not the way it was supposed to be.

>>Larry Lemmons:
What specific things during the George Bush presidency do you find particularly worrisome?

>>Gene Healy:
I think the most staggering claim they made was in the Jose Padilla case, where the claim was the president could designate an American citizen, an enemy combatant, pick that citizen up on American soil, and hold him for the duration of the War on Terror, which could be forever. Now, they've made broad claims like this, they made in the torture memos, basically the claim that the president is above the law, and the president has a magic scepter of authority that he can break any law that he pleases. They have not exercised these powers to the degree -- they haven't taken it to the limits of its logic. So there haven't been -- certainly there were some real crackdowns on civil liberties in the past. We haven't really seen anything to the extent of Japanese internment, or the crackdown on civil liberties that Woodrow Wilson pursued in World War I, but what -- in the legal briefs and the papers that the president's administration has filed, the claim is that the president can launch wars at will, wire tap at will, and make citizens disappear, if he wants to. And that's pretty disturbing.

>>Larry Lemmons:
Of course you can see if you're president, would you want the power to be able to do whatever you think needs to be done. But you were saying that the Cult of the Presidency has a lot more to do with the American people.

>>Gene Healy:
Yeah. There's the old line from the Walt Kelly comic strip "Pogo."

>>Larry Lemmons:
"See the enemy and he is us."

>>Gene Healy:
The "Pogo" principle is sort of what's going on here, because I think a lot of people, particularly on the left side of the political spectrum nowadays, they have a whole bunch of hope about this election, and they think that our problems with the imperial presidency will be gone when George W. Bush heads back to the ranch to cut brush. I don't think that's the case, because I think that it is -- the office we're getting is in many ways a reflection of public demands. And if the expectation is not only that the president will heal the nation's wounds when it comes to the economy, when it comes to health care, when it comes to spiritual malaise, sometimes you hear that phrase.

>>Larry Lemmons:
Well not since Jimmy Carter.

>>Gene Healy:
Yeah. But the general idea is out there. But if this is the notion of, you know, what the president is capable of doing, and what the president is actually on the hook for, and you add to that the idea that any time a bomb goes off in a subway car, somewhere in the country the president must have -- be able to stop this sort of thing, which is, you know, really impossible, I think you've basically set up a cycle that is going to increasingly lead to more presidential power. Because anybody in that position, anybody held accountable for essentially doing the impossible is going to seek more power to try to manage those responsibilities.

>>Larry Lemmons:
Well, what do you see as a remedy to this?

>>Gene Healy:
I think -- that is the -- that's the tough question. I -- in the book I have some legislative proposals, I'd like to see Congress step up, I'd like to see the courts step up. But I think ultimately unless we change what we ask of the presidency, unless we learn to expect a little bit less, expect -- to have more realistic expectations, and to look at the office not as the potential fulfillment of all our needs and all our hopes and dreams, but to look at it more in the way the framers looked at it, as an important office, but one that would constitutionally limit aims and constitutionally limited powers, I think that's what we need to do in order to put the genie back in the bottle.

>>Larry Lemmons:
Gene Healy thanks for talking to "Horizon."

>>Gene Healy:

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