This January either Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump will stand before the American people and swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
In 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America And Four Who Tried Save Her (Regnery History, 2016, $29.99, 320 pages), historian and writer Brion McClanahan evaluates the presidency and those who have served in that office. He employs, however, a different standard than that used by many other historians. Most of us have surely read those polls where academics rank the presidents by their accomplishments and failures. In 9 Presidents, McClanahan instead judges our chief executives by how well they upheld their oath to preserve and protect the Constitution.
Their record in this regard is unimpressive, even abysmal. For the past 175 years, and particularly in the last century, we have witnessed the office of the president accruing powers granted it by neither the Constitution nor the Congress. We have raised that executive office far beyond what the Founders of this country intended, to the neglect of other political offices.
(If you doubt me, let me ask a few questions. Can you name the mayor of your city? Your state senators and representatives? Your representatives and senators in Congress? Do you know their politics and where they stand on the issues pertinent to our times? These are the politicians who should be fixing our roads, improving our schools, and listening to our concerns, yet I suspect many of us — and I do mean me as well — are ignorant here).
The nine presidents McClanahan accuses of “screwing up America” by violating their presidential oaths are Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama.
McClanahan’s assessment of Richard Nixon — his “six years in office can best be described as an unbridled romp over the Constitution. That alone places him among the ranks of the worst presidents in American history” — can be applied to these other men as well. Our history books may rate these men as great in their accomplishments, but in terms of the Constitution they violated the oath taken at their inaugurations, expanding the powers of the presidency beyond constitutional boundaries. In that sense, they were guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
McClanahan’s four presidents who tried to save America, that is, who tried to operate by the Constitution, were Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge. These men made the effort to “reduce the presidency to its rightful place as a co-equal rather than a dominant branch in relation to the legislature” (page 207). Because I knew so little about Tyler, McClanahan’s chapter on him was particularly instructive, revealing the trials he faced when as vice president he was elevated to the office of president on the death of President William Henry Harrison.
Regarding the presidency and the Constitution since the time of Theodore Roosevelt, McClanahan notes that with the exception of Calvin Coolidge, all of our chief executives have frequently violated the constitutional boundaries of their office. For example, our presidents since the days of Ronald Reagan — Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama — have all seized extraordinary powers and abused their office. As McClanahan tells us, the president is not our “chief legislator,” but exists primarily to execute or veto laws passed by Congress.
Yet we regard this chief executive more and more as a maker of laws. And though the president is head of our armed forces, our Constitution does not give that person or his administration the power to wage war. That is the job of the Congress. Yet the last time the Congress officially declared war was against Japan on December 8, 1941.
In his chapter “Barack Obama,” in which he excoriates all four as of these past presidents for “twenty-eight consecutive years of unconstitutional executive usurpation of power,” McClanahan ends with these words: “The British taxpayer spends around $50 million annually to support the entire royal family. With an annual budget that exceeds $1 billion for expenses, including travel, the American president supplanted the British monarch in everything but title long ago.”
This is the office that in January 2017 either Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump will occupy, an office bringing to the new president unprecedented wealth and power.
9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America is a vivid, well-written reminder of the damage the last century has done to our Constitution and our republic. Judging from the titles to his other books, which I have not read, Brion McClanahan would likely be considered a conservative. But in this case his politics matter less than his cause. Whether we are liberals, progressives, or conservatives, we need to be wary about the men and women who govern our lives. And in the case of the president, we need to be ever vigilant, for we have inched closer and closer toward tyranny.
I have not heard the term imperial presidency since the days of Richard Nixon. Now seems the time to dust off that old title and decide whether we want to live in a republic or under an emperor.