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Monday, March 2, 2009

The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power

Gene Healy relates a sad and disturbing “kids say the darndest things” anecdote in his new book. The story typifies an attitude toward government that Healy, senior editor at the Cato Institute, rightly identifies in his book’s title as The Cult of the Presidency. A little girl, on hearing that President Kennedy had been murdered in 1963, wondered sadly to her mother “where would we get our food and clothes from?”

That little girl with her bizarre beliefs about the powers and responsibilities of the president is a voting adult now—as are millions whose attitudes about government are at least somewhat like hers. She’s probably now wondering if our new president can fill the impossible role Americans expect of their chief executive.

As Healy demonstrates, the perceived responsibilities and powers of the president of the United States have metastasized dangerously since their original conception at the American founding. The president was meant merely to preside over the execution of the laws of the United States, not to be an all-powerful superhero unconstrained in an endless quest to right all wrongs, foreign and domestic. When President John Adams craved the title of “His Highness,” Congress would have none of it; Pennsylvania Senator William Macley called the notion “base,” “silly,” and even “idolatrous.”

Healy charts the resilience of this constrained vision of presidential power, even after the upheaval and power grabs of the Lincoln era. The accumulation of power and hubris at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue accelerated with the rise to power and prominence of men such as Theodore Roosevelt (who wanted to legislate changes in the English language from the White House and started foreign military adventures without congressional approval) and Woodrow Wilson (who declared that God ordained him to be president and cheered a “spirit of ruthless brutality [in the] fiber of our national life. . . . [E]very man who refuses to conform will have to pay the penalty.”).

From Franklin D. Roosevelt on, all the traditional restrictions on the president’s powers crumbled. We find ourselves in a political world where, as in a 1992 presidential debate, candidates are asked to “make a commitment [to] meet [the] needs” of all Americans. Not a single candidate even raised his brow at the extraconstitutional implications of that request.

This book provides a depressing dissection of modern trends in political power—and in Americans’ conception of that power, which underlies the problem of executive overreach. As Healy notes, that makes any quick fix to the “cult of the presidency” unlikely. But the book also contains touches of delightful nostalgia for an America gone by.

One can’t help admiring such derided “do-nothing” presidents as Warren Harding. He gets sneered at by historians and political science professors for lacking the hubris of power, but he pardoned the peaceful protestors his predecessor Woodrow Wilson tossed in jail. Every American should feel a yearning for a past in which a presidential candidate like William Taft could say bluntly that the president “cannot create good times . . . cannot make the rain to fall, the sun to shine, or the crops to grow;” a world where it took five years after the third assassinated president for Congress to grant the holder of the office his own armed janissaries; a time when presidents before Wilson thought that giving their state of the union addresses in person was demagogic.

Healy rightly notes that Congress is complicit in the failure of the Founding Fathers’ system whereby jealousy of their respective prerogatives was supposed to keep any one branch of government from overpowering the others. Our craven Congress grants vague powers and then complains about how the executive uses them—both in war-making and domestic policy.

If Congress is to blame for giving way, the White House is to blame for pushing. Healy details the many ways in which the recent Bush administration championed a wildly expansive vision of executive power in the wake of 9/11. The administration’s leading scholar of executive omnipotence, John Yoo, formerly of Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel, once said in a public debate that the president might well be able to order the extralegal crushing of a child’s testicles if he had the proper national-security reason for doing so.

Gene Healy has ably cast down the idols of the cult of the presidency. But it remains a limited devotion in a larger cult: that of government itself. That cult’s complications and crises loom even larger than the presidency.

  • Brian Doherty is an author and a senior editor at Reason magazine and


  • Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute. His research interests include executive power and the role of the presidency, as well as federalism and overcriminalization.