WATCH: “The Presidency … Has Become Symbolic of Overreaching”
September 19, 2010
President and Mrs. Arnn, Mr. John Cervini, Mr. David Bobb, Elliot Gaiser, College Republicans and each and every one of the faculty and students of Hillsdale College here today.… As I am sure you know, honor is what allows us to do what is right despite the cost. Even greater honor is required to do what is right in the face of superior power. And the greatest honor is to stand strong even if it means standing alone.
The long fight of Hillsdale College, standing alone—then and now for the proposition that all men are created equal, then with Frederick Douglass, now with Clarence Thomas; then and now in the conviction that, as Americans are not horses, we were not born to have saddles placed on our backs, by anyone, at any time, and for any reason…. This long fight, you have fought for love of ideas that did not come in dreams, or as Reagan said, did not “spring full bloom” from your brow, but “came from the heart of a great nation,” rose in a time of unprecedented stress and genius, and since the founding kept this country whole, prosperous, safe, just, free and good.
It is therefore a high honor for me to stand before you in this place so closely associated with the founding of the Republican Party in opposition to the unforgivable sin of slavery; this place where statesmanship is taught as an art, and where right conduct is seen as its own reward. I thank you, and may God bless you for your bravery and courage.
I rise to pay a debt of honor and a debt to history. My subject today is the presidency, and my hope is that you see that institution in a new light and never despair of the republic.
The presidency is the most visible thread that runs through the tapestry of the American government. More often than not, for good or for ill, it sets the tone for the other branches and spurs the expectations of the people. Its powers are vast and consequential, its requirements—from the outset and by definition—impossible for mortals to fulfill without humility and insistent attention to its purpose as set forth in the Constitution of the United States.
Isn’t it amazing, given the great and momentous nature of the office, that those who seek it seldom pause to consider what they are seeking? Rather, unconstrained by principle or reflection, there is a mad rush toward something that, once its powers are seized, the new president can wield as an instrument with which to transform the nation and the people according to his highest aspirations
But, other than in a crisis of the house divided, the presidency is neither fit nor intended to be such an instrument. When it is made that, the country sustains a wound, and cries out justly and indignantly. And what the nation says—the theme of this address… What it says, informed by its long history, impelled by the laws of nature and nature’s God…
What it says quite naturally and rightly, if not always gracefully, is that we as a people are not to be ruled and not to be commanded. It says that the president should never forget this; that he has not risen above us, but is merely one of us, chosen by ballot, dismissed after his term, tasked not to transform and work his will upon us, but to bear the weight of decision and to carry out faithfully the design laid down in the Constitution and impassioned by the Declaration of Independence.
The presidency must adhere to its definition as expressed in the Constitution, and to conduct defined over time and by tradition. While the powers of the office have enlarged, along with those of the legislature and the judiciary, the framework of the government was intended to restrict abuses common to classical empires and to the regal states of the 18th century.
Without proper adherence to the role contemplated in the Constitution for the presidency, the checks and balances in the constitutional plan become weakened. This has been most obvious in recent years when the three branches of government have been subject to the tutelage of a single party. Under either party, presidents have often forgotten that they are intended to restrain the Congress at times, and that the Congress is independent of their desires. And thus fused in unholy unity, the political class has raged forward in a drunken expansion of powers and prerogatives, mistakenly assuming that to exercise power is by default to do good.
Even the simplest among us knows that this is not so. Power is an instrument of fatal consequence. It is confined no more readily than quicksilver, and escapes good intentions as easily as air flows through mesh. Therefore, those who are entrusted with it must educate themselves in self-restraint. A republic—if you can keep it—is about limitation, and for good reason, because we are mortal and our actions are imperfect.
The tragedy of presidential decision is that even with the best choice, some, perhaps many, will be left behind, and some, perhaps many, may die. Because of this, a true statesman lives continuously with what Churchill called “stress of soul.” He may give to Paul, but only because he robs Peter. And that is why you must always be wary of a president who seems to float upon his own greatness. For all greatness is tempered by mortality, every soul is equal, and distinctions among men cannot be owned; they are on loan from God, who takes them back and evens accounts at the end.
It is a tragedy indeed that new generations taking office attribute failures in governance to insufficient power, and seek more of it. In the judiciary this has seldom been better expressed than by Justice Thurgood Marshall’s dictum that, “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.” In the Congress, it presents itself in massive legislation, acts and codes thousands of pages long and so monstrously over-complicated that no human being can read through them in a lifetime—much less understand them, much less apply them justly to a people that increasingly feel like they are no longer being asked, they are being told. Our nation finds itself in the position of a dog whose duty it is not to ask why, because the “why” is too elevated for his nature, but simply to obey.
America is not a dog, and does not require a “because-I-said-so” jurisprudence to which it is then commanded to catch up, or legislators who knit laws of such insulting complexity that they are heavier than chains; or a president who acts like, speaks like, and is received as a king. The presidency has run off the rails. It begs a new clarity, a new discipline, and a new president.
The president is not our teacher, our tutor, our guide or ruler. He does not command us, we command him. We serve neither him nor his vision. It is not his job or his prerogative to redefine custom, law and beliefs; to appropriate industries; to seize the country, as it were, by the shoulders or by the throat so as to impose by force of theatrical charisma his justice upon 300 million others. It is neither his job nor his prerogative to shift the power of decision away from them, and to him and the acolytes of his choosing.
Is my characterization of unprecedented presumption incorrect? I defer to the judgment of the people, which they will make with their own eyes, and ears. Listen to the exact words of the leader of President Obama’s transition team and perhaps his next chief-of-staff: “It’s important that President-Elect Obama is prepared to really take power and begin to rule day one.” Or, more recently, from the words of the latest presidential appointment to avoid confirmation by the Senate, the new head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wrote last Friday, “President Obama understands the importance of leveling the playing field again.”
“Take power… Rule… Leveling.” Though it is now, this has never been and should never again be the model of the presidency or the character of the American president. No one can say this too strongly and no one can say it enough until it is remedied. We are not subjects, we are citizens. We fought a war so that we do not have to treat even kings like kings, and—if I may remind you—we won that war. Since then, the principle of royalty has, in this country, been inoperative. Who is better suited or more required to exemplify this conviction, in word and deed, than the President of the United States?
The powers of the presidency are extraordinary and necessarily great, and great presidents treat them sparingly. For example, it is not the president’s job to manipulate the nation’s youth for the sake of his agenda or his party. They are a potent political force when massed by the social network to which they are permanently attached. But if the president has their true interests at heart he will neither flatter them nor let them adore him, for in flattery is condescension and in adoration is direction, and youth is neither seasoned nor tested enough to direct a nation. Nor should it be the president’s business to presume to direct them. It is difficult enough to do right by one’s own children. No one can be the father of a whole continent’s youth.
Is the president, therefore, expected to turn away from this and other easy advantage? Yes. Like Harry Truman who went to bed before the result on election night—he must know when to withdraw, to hold back, and to forgo attention, publicity, or advantage.
No finer, more moving, or profound an understanding of the nature of the presidency and the command of humility placed upon it has ever been expressed than by President Coolidge. He, like Lincoln, lost a child while he was president, a son of sixteen. “The day I became president,” Coolidge wrote, “he had just started to work in a tobacco field. When one of his fellow laborers said to him, ‘If my father was president I would not work in a tobacco field,’ Calvin replied, ‘If my father were your father you would.’ “
While in the White House, President Coolidge’s son contracted blood poisoning from an incident on the South Lawn. Coolidge wrote, “What might have happened to him under other circumstances we do not know, but if I had not been president.…” And then he continues, “In his suffering he was asking me to make him well. I could not.
“When he went, the power and glory of the Presidency went with him.”
A sensibility such as this, and not power, is the source of presidential dignity, and must be restored. It depends entirely upon character, self-discipline, and an understanding of the fundamental principles that underlie not only the republic but life itself. It communicates that the president feels the gravity of his office and is willing to sacrifice himself; that his eye is not upon his own prospects but on the storm of history through which it is his responsibility to navigate with the specific powers accorded to him and the limitations placed upon them not merely by man in his design but by God in His.
The modern presidency has drifted far from the great strength and illumination of its source: the Constitution as given life by the luminous and passionate Declaration of Independence, the greatest political document ever written. The Constitution, terse, sober, and specific, does not, except by implication, address the president’s demeanor, but this we can read in the best qualities of the founding generation, which we would do well to imitate. In the Capitol Rotunda are heroic paintings of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the victory at Saratoga, the victory at Yorktown, and, something seldom seen in history: a general, the leader of an armed rebellion, resigning his commission and surrendering his army to a new democracy. Upon hearing from Benjamin West that George Washington, having won the war and been urged by some to use the army to make himself king, would instead return to his farm, George III said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” He did, and he was.
To aspire to such virtue and self-restraint would in a sense be difficult, but in another sense it should be easy—difficult because it would be demanding and ideal, and easy because it is the right thing to do and the rewards are immediately self-evident.
A president who slights the Constitution is like a rider who hates his horse: he will be thrown, and the nation along with him. The president solemnly swears to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. He does not solemnly swear to ignore, overlook, supplement, or reinterpret it. Other than in a crisis of morality, decency, and existence, such as the Civil War, if he should want to hurry along the Constitution to fit his own notions or designs, he should do so by amendment rather than adjustment, for if he joins the powers of his office to his own willful interpretation, he steps away from a government of laws and toward a government of men.
Is the Constitution a fluctuating and inconstant document, a collection of suggestions the purpose of which is to stimulate debate in a future to which the Founders were necessarily blind? Progressives tell us that even the Framers themselves could not reach agreement in its regard. But they did agree upon it. And they wrote it down. And they signed it. And they lived by it. Its words are unchanging and unchangeable except—as planned—by careful amendment. There is no instruction to the president to override the law and, like Justice Marshall, let it catch up to his superior conception. Why is this good? It is good because the sun will burn out, the Ohio River will flow backwards, and the cow will jump over the moon 10,000 times before any modern president’s conception is superior to that of the Founders of this nation.
Would it be such a great surprise that a good part of the political strife of our times is because one president after another, rather than keeping faith to it, argues with the document he is supposed to live by? This discontent will only be calmed by returning the presidency to the great first principles. The president should regard the Constitution and the Declaration like an obsessed lover. They should be on his mind all the time, the prism through which the light of all questions of governance passes. Though we have—sometimes gradually, sometimes radically—moved away from this, we can move back to it. And who better than the president to restore this wholesome devotion?
And as the president returns to the consistent application of the principles in the Constitution, he will also ensure fiscal responsibility and prosperity. Who is better suited, with his executive and veto powers, to carry over the duty of self restraint and discipline to the idea of fiscal solvency? When the president restrains government spending, leaving room for the American people to enjoy the fruits of their labor, growth is inevitable. As Senator Robert Taft wrote, “Liberty has been the key to our progress in the past and is the key to our progress in the future.… If we can preserve liberty in all its essentials, there is no limit to the future of the American people.”
Whereas, at home, the president must be cautious, dutiful, and deferential, abroad, his character must change. Were he to ask for a primer on how to act in relation to other states, which no holder of the office has needed to this point, and were that primer to be written by the American people, whether of 1776 or 2010, you can be confident that it would contain the following instructions:
“The President of the United States of America bows to no man. You do not bow to kings. When in foreign lands, you do not criticize your own country. You do not argue the case against the United States, but, rather, the case for it. You do not apologize to the enemies of the United States. Should you be confused, a country, people, or region that harbors, shelters, supports, encourages, or cheers attacks upon our country, the slaughter of our children, our mothers, our fathers, our sisters, and brothers… are enemies of the United States. And, to repeat, you do not apologize to them.”
Closely related to this, and perhaps the least ambiguous of the president’s complex responsibilities, is his duty as Commander-in-Chief of the military. In this regard there is a very simple rule, unknown to some presidents regardless of party:
If… and it is perhaps the biggest “if” any president can face, for it will follow not just him but hundreds of thousands or millions of others, not just for the rest of their lives but, in cost of blood and souls, beyond life itself.
If… and it is an “if” that requires long and deep thought, tremendously hard labor at determining the truth of things, a lifetime of education, the knowledge of a general, the wisdom of a statesman, and the heart of an infantryman….
If… after careful determination, intense stress of soul, and the deepest prayer….
If, then, you go to war, then, having gone to war, by God, you go to war to win.
You do not cast away American lives, or those of the innocent noncombatant enemy, upon a theory, a gambit, or a notion. And if the politics of your own election or of your party intrude upon your decisions for even an instant—there are no words for this.
More commonplace, but hardly less important, are other expectations of the president in this regard. He must not stint on the equipment and provisioning of the Armed Forces, and if he errs it must be not on the side of scarcity but of surplus. And he must be the guardian of his troops, taking every step to avoid the loss of even a single life.
The American soldier is as precious as the closest of your kin—because he is your kin, and for his sake the president must, in effect, say to the Congress and to the people: “I am the Commander-in-Chief, it is my sacred duty to defend the United States, give our soldiers what they need to complete the mission and come home safe, whatever the cost.” Of all the hard choices that Congress may have to make to ensure this, which one of these things alone or in combination is more terrible than the sacrifice of our children or the defeat of our nation?
If, in fulfilling this duty, the president wavers, he will have betrayed his office, for this is not a policy, it is probity. And it is not an expedient artifact of my imagination, it is written on the blood-soaked ground of Saratoga, Yorktown, Antietam, Cold Harbor, The Marne, Guadalcanal, the Pointe du Hoc, the Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sanh, Iraq, Afghanistan, and a thousand other places in our history, in lessons repeated over and over again.
The presidency, a great and complex subject upon which I have only touched, has become symbolic of overreaching. There are many truths that we have been frightened to tell or face. If we run from them, they will catch us with our backs turned and pull us down. Better that we should not flee but rather stop and look them in the eye.
What might our forebears say to us, knowing what they knew, and having done what they did? I have no doubt that they would tell us to channel our passions, simply speak the truth and to do what is right, slowly and with resolution; to work calmly, steadily and without animus or fear; to be like a rock in the tide, let the water tumble about us, and be firm and unashamed in our love of country.
I see us like those in Philadelphia in 1776. Danger all around, but a fresh chapter, ready to begin, uncorrupted, with great possibilities and—inexplicably, perhaps miraculously – the way is clearing ahead. I have never doubted that Providence can appear in history like the sun emerging from behind the clouds, if only as a reward for adherence to first principles. As Winston Churchill said before Congress on December 26, 1941, “He must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, of which we have the honor to be the faithful servants.”
A long time ago, during the tortured history of Rome, in the fourth century, A.D., Emperor Constantius (son of Emperor Constantine, and of mixed virtue) was faced with an ultimatum backed by what appeared to be a military force impossible to resist. Failure and defeat seemed certain to everyone. But in the morning, when his answer was due, he said to his assembled troops: “Last night, after I retired to rest, the shade of the great Constantine, embracing the corpse of my murdered brother, rose before my eyes, [and] his well-known voice forbade me to despair of the republic.”
We, too, have the voices of shades that emerge from the past. We too, have what Lincoln in his First Inaugural called, “the mystic chords of memory stretching from every patriot grave.” They bind us to the great and the humble, the known and the unknown—and if I hear them clearly, what they say is that although we may have strayed, we have not strayed too far to return, for we are, every one of us, their descendants. The sinews are still there, quite lively, waiting to flex. We can still astound the world with justice, reason and strength. I know this is true, but even were it not we could not in decency stand down, if only for our debt to history, the debt we owe to those who came before, who did great things, and suffered more than we suffer, and gave more than we give, and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor—for us, whom they did not know. For we “drink from wells we did not dig” and are “warmed by fires we did not build,” and so we must be faithful in our time as they were in theirs.
Many great generations are gone, but I see them in my mind’s eye, and by the character and memory of their existence they forbid us to despair of the republic. I see them crossing the prairies in the sun and wind. I see their faces looking out from steel mills and coal mines, and immigrant ships crawling into the harbors at dawn. I see them at war, at work and at peace. I see them, long departed, looking into the camera, with hopeful and sad eyes. And I see them embracing their children … who became us. They are our family and our blood, and we cannot desert them. In spirit, all of them come down to all of us, in a connection that, out of love, we cannot betray.
They are silent now and forever, but from the eternal silence of every patriot grave there is yet an echo that says, “It is not too late, keep faith with us, keep faith with God, and do not, do not ever despair of the republic.”