The Presidency and Reality
May 24, 2012
So, I am reading this book, Brothers in Arms, about the Kennedy brothers, Jack and Bobby, and the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul. It is about how the Kennedys were obsessed with Fidel and wanted him dead. They clearly were trying to have Fidel assassinated and, it would appear, that Fidel got JFK before JFK could get Fidel – although this is not the conclusion of the book’s authors.
Anyway, several passages made me wonder about the presidency and how it, the office that is, affects the way we look at our situation, the human situation. Time and again, the authors point out how the Republicans were responsible for goading Jack and Bobby into action against Castro by labeling them “soft” on Communism and how this affected how the Kennedys thought about the possibility of re-election in 1964.
This may be a persuasive line of argument but to what extent does the office of the presidency itself “goad” its occupants into action? That is, to give one person as much power and prestige as is given to the president, any president, implies that this power can be used and should be used to accomplish “big things.” This pushes a person occupying that office toward not just taking action but taking big action, accomplishing big things, undertaking as Hamilton put it projects that require much effort to complete. Got a chance to “take out,” to assassinate an “enemy of the state?” Do it, by God, do it. After all, isn’t that why you have all that power? Got a chance to change the character, the political and social and economic character of the world or a sizable portion thereof? Then do it, “just do it.” After all, isn’t that why you have all that power? Got a chance to create and then subdue a “New Frontier,” or create a “New Deal,” or create a “Great Society?” Then do it, “just do it.” After all, this is why you were given all the power you possess!
Believe it or not, some of those who opposed the ratification of the Constitution in 1787 and 1788 were aware of this aspect of the proposed presidential office and thought it less than desirable. As Patrick Henry said during the Virginia ratifying convention, the presidency had “an awful squinting; it squit[ed] in the direction of monarchy.” And for Henry, this office would be part of a “splendid government,” one like the governments that then controlled Europe and undertook to do great things by means of institutions geared for action and/or war. As Henry put it then, this was actually a new language for America and Americans. For in its youth, Henry said, America and Americans spoke the language not of a splendid government accomplishing great things but of individual liberty. And this just might be a distinction we would do well to reconsider.